Archive for the ‘Ash Wednesday’ Category

Ashes on the hearth

We don’t have much day-to-day contact with ashes these days. Awood stove in the winter, a fireplace, a barbecue grill, an ashtray. None of these is particularly symbolic or even suggestive of anything spiritual. And yet we gather once a year in great numbers to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads.

In a book on Celtic traditions, much of one chapter involved welcome and protection rituals for home and hearth practiced by the ancient Celts. Fire was seen as carrying the protection and providence of the sun itself, an “indoor sun” as it were. Ashes from the hearth fire were sprinkled at the threshold of the home at certain times of the year as a form of protection for the inhabitants.

Wood ash was used by our pioneer forebears to make soap. The chemical reaction between the tallow and the ash created a harsh but effective soap for skin and clothes, providing much needed cleansing for people who worked hard in difficult and dirty conditions.

In ancient cultures, ashes were used as a sign of mourning, a symbolic acknowledgement that the fires of life had left not only the one who had died but also those who were left to grieve.

And of course the legend of the phoenix, dying in a burst of flame and then rising again reborn from the ashes of its old self has become familiar once again to readers of the Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawlkes plays a significant role.

We stand at the threshold of one of the holiest and most rigorous seasons of our church year. We are signed with the ashes of repentance, of awareness of our limitations, our need for conversion. But they are blessed ashes, holy ashes, and they hold also the promise of cleansing, protection, and most importantly, the promise of resurrection.


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Palms to Ashes

Each year we celebrate Palm Sunday.
We commemorate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Our palms on that day suggest our hopes for victory.
We welcome our dream of a messiah.
But the green palms of feverish, excited hopes
can dry and crack in a long year of sorrow and joy.
Perhaps our hopes have been disappointed.
Perhaps we’ve betrayed another’s hope in us.
Or perhaps dreams realized have stirred in us new challenges to grow.

In our ritual burning of last year’s palms,
we acknowledge the death of last year’s hopes and disappointments.
We come forward to receive a cross of ashes,
to remind ourselves to be faithful to God’s challenge
for new hopes, new dreams, new life.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that all flesh is grass,
only God’s word endures.
There is fear in this, but also much hope.
Lent teaches us the valuable lesson
that we need to let go of our past
if we’re going to be free to embrace our future.
But this letting go is never easy, never painless.
It feels like the death it is.

As we begin Lent, we enter into death itself that we might be redeemed.
The cross reminds us that only through death is there life.
The more deeply we witness to the death and resurrection of the Christ,
the more we realize that anything not absorbed into this mystery,
any love that doesn’t embrace the cross,
is dust and ashes.

How quickly fire can consume the things of the earth!
Our lives pass as quickly in the sight of God.
But we do not despair.
For out of the ashes of our lives, we give birth to eternity.
The phoenix, that mythical symbol of resurrection,
is continually reborn out of the ashes of what has gone before.
Whether good or bad,
filled with great joy or great pain,
when yesterday has passed
we know only that we have grown,
that we have changed,
that we have journeyed forward.

Much has happened in this past year.
We need to look deeply into our hearts.
We see darkness that seeks light,
dryness that seeks water.
We see smoldering hopes and dreams,
waiting to burst into flame–
the flame of new life, stirred by the breath of God.

Lent is a time of purification,
a time to prepare for a resurrection of the love of Christ in our lives.

Lent is a time of conversion.
Too often we see conversion only as a turning away from sin.
But conversion is also a turning toward.
We turn to the new and unexpected
that we might be challenged to grow.
We do not wallow in regret for the sins of the past.
Instead, we offer our repentance,
and celebrate the Lord’s forgiveness.

Each year, we listen as the prophet Joel calls us to this season of conversion:
“Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, weeping and mourning.
Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn,
and return to the Lord your God.”

We don’t always take time to grieve our losses,
time to mourn what has passed.
Our God calls us to this intense experience,
calls us to the heart of the season.
Again and again our hearts are broken
by life’s great ecstasies and torments,
broken open in love to another’s touch
or broken open by a pain that needs healing.
We need this time of Lent
to find peace within our hearts,
to find wholeness and growth and new life.

A coal left burning untended on a grate
will darken and dull beneath a layer of ashes.
These ashes need to be shaken off,
that the coal might burn red once again.
Lent can shake the ashes from our souls
until we glow with the message of the gospel,
with the passion of Christ.

One of the most difficult struggles we face
is drifting aimlessly through the desert.
Eyes closed to the stinging sand,
the burning light and heat,
mind and heart closed by the mirages of the past,
determined not to be fooled again,
we miss the oases, the watered gardens,
the cool green vision of God’s healing love.
We shuffle, stumble, fall,
and wait for someone to pick us up and dust off the layers of sand.

If we don’t take time to shake off the ashes,
to brush away the sand,
we will find that the dreams and possibilities of our lives have passed us by.
Our passion will be spent,
burnt away without ever having an opportunity
to shine with God’s warmth and splendor.

We welcome Lent as the time and space to renew our souls,
to open our eyes to the gifts of our God.
Paul tells us that God says,
“In an acceptable time I have heard you;
on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
We meet Lent with the bold proclamation:
“Now is the acceptable time! This is the day of salvation.”

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