Power in Ashes

Posted: February 18, 2021 in Uncategorized
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Ash Wednesday is the most powerful day of the year. At least it is for me. Embarking on the season of Lent is, for those who choose to make it so, a deeply spiritual exercise. It does not allow us to descend into spiritual pabulum, or the type of religion which seeks to simply make us feel good. If you need to feel good, go to a spa. Ash Wednesday and Lent force us to be completely honest, about ourselves and the realities of a finite earthly existence. For some, this gives the sense of morbidity, being morose, or a big Debbie-Downer. It need not be so, nor was it intended to be. It is only in the honest reflection of this inevitability for each of us can something as powerful as death lose its grip and power over us. It is healthy and good and healing that we should go through such an exercise as Ash Wednesday delivers.

For those unfamiliar, ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms are imposed on the forehead, formed in the emblem of the cross. This imposition is accompanied by the words, “Remember you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and we shall one day be returned to the earth. It is a bold act that proclaims our human condition. People have tried to escape our finite fate for as long as we’ve roamed the planet. Well, good luck with that. Might as well come to terms with it.

When we honestly face the reality of our existence, and come to terms with the natural rhythm of birth-life-death, something powerful happens within us. It can begin in us a kind of process through which we realize value of each and every moment of each and every day. Breath itself becomes a gift.

For many years it is my privilege to mark thousands of the faithful with a cross made of ash, “…to dust you shall return.” These are deeply powerful expressions of faith. Not simply the emotional sort of event that can only leave us empty after a brief, short-lived and shallow moment. This act of born of faith and hope, of the variety that can touch us for a lifetime.

I’ve marked infants and toddlers and hundred-year-olds and everyone in between. Each of them carries a beautiful and unique story with them, usually filled both with tragedy and triumph. Many have lost spouses. Others carry deep emotional or spiritual scars, and crave a ray of light in their darkness. There are those who live within a personal hell of their own creation, and are begging for a slice of heaven. There are broken families. There is the fear and uncertainty of illness. Some may raise their brow to receive the ashes sheerly from a position of gratitude and joy; they are thankful for all God provides, and for the daily renewal of faith.

Over time, my job and calling has me bury many of these beautiful children of God. It never fails, each Ash Wednesday I ponder, “Who will not be here next year?” It’s what happens when we’re joined in Christ through a faith community. I do not want to bury them. I’d like to have things as they were, their companionship this side of eternity. I wish there were no need to sit with their loved ones in the quiet anguish of grief. Yet, this is our honest reality.

The power and beauty of a day like yesterday lifts us into God’s good future. So, make the most of each Ash Wednesday, savor life’s fullness in all moments. You never know which one will be your last. Live fully. Drink deeply from life’s rich well. Love much.

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