Usually ashes are easy to come by.
In my most recent congregational call, our efficient Altar Guild would always make sure we had plenty of ashes on hand every year as Epiphany drew to a close and Ash Wednesday fast approached.
Only as a much younger pastor, I wasn’t yet aware that ashes could be special ordered and would arrive in a nice tidy pouch ready to be made into the sign of the cross on the foreheads of anyone so seeking the reminder that we are but dust.
And somewhere along the way I had learned of the tradition of setting aside the palms from the previous Palm/Passion Sunday and then burning them to produce the ashes to be imposed on Ash Wednesday.
And so it was that one of the leaders of Grace Lutheran Church and I gathered up the dried leaves of the palms from the year before. Together we crushed them into a coffee can on her kitchen table. And we dropped a lit match into the can.
It did not go well.
I don’t much remember the details any more, but I will always be grateful we didn’t have to call the fire department to rescue us.
I don’t much remember the details these many years later, but I do recall that in the years that followed, we handed those palms over to Clarence who much more efficiently converted them to ashes in his outdoor grill.
Usually, though, ashes are easy to come by. Indeed, the sort of ashes which mark our lives and not just our foreheads can usually be encountered at every turn.
We recognize them in hopes that have been dreamed and lost, in people we have loved and grieve, in intentions to do better that somehow never quite got accomplished or in those times when in our sinfulness we never actually meant to do good at all.
We know ashes, even though perhaps we’d rather not dwell in them for long. Which is why we have Ash Wednesday, I suppose. To be sure that we do ‘dwell’ there for a while: long enough to hear the promise that is meant for us in the midst of loss or struggle or pain or regret or fear.
And so we come to Ash Wednesday and we kneel once more to receive the sign of Christ’s own cross traced on our foreheads. Ashes may be all around us and in that moment they are all gathered up and we are reminded that what was just ashes somehow, by God’s grace and power, becomes the source of our very hope.
For with the tracing of a finger on your forehead you will also hear the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Remember that God is God and you are not.
Remember that in ‘returning to God’ as the prophet reminds us today you will be given everything that matters.
Remember that the cross you bear today is sign and symbol of your very hope. For God does amazing things with dust and ashes. God brings hope out of despair, joy out of sorrow, life out of death.
Usually ashes are easy to come by. As they are traced on your forehead and as you encounter them in the midst of your life, may they be the gift only God can make them to be. May they point you again to the very source of our life and our hope. Amen.
- When you hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" what comes to your mind?
- What are the ashes from the midst of your life that you carry with you as you begin the season of Lent? Are you able yet to see how God just may do a new thing with those ashes?
- What does it mean to you to 'return to the Lord with all your heart' this season?