This year an uncommonly late Ash Wednesday has given me more time to think about Ash Wednesdays and Lents in the past. I remember some fondly, others not so fondly. I spent one Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem, and remember imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful in a high wind as we stood in the night overlooking the Old City. I recall Ash Wednesdays in Connecticut where the ice was so thick you practically had to use a pick to get out the front door. My favorite Ash Wednesday was probably the one I prepared for on a Caribbean beach, lying out in the sun when a couple of dozen youth swarmed around on a work-study trip.
But the Ash Wednesdays that run together in my mind are those that felt like the beginning of something new, something big. “This Lent,” I have often said to myself, “This Lent I am going to get it right.” So I have vowed to begin a discipline, or to resume one that I had discarded. And those vows and promises go up in smoke, and come to so many ashes falling from the sky and covering me on Ash Wednesday.
You may know that the ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palms that we waved last Palm Sunday, or some other Palm Sunday. They were signs of victory, emblems of triumph. Altar guilds all over the place go outside on Shrove Tuesday and fire up their hibachis for burning palms. They get a little cupful (a few ashes go a long way). And we smudge the foreheads of the faithful, veiling the baptismal cross marked on us when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in our New Birth at the font. Those ashes we are told are signs of our mortality and penitence. They are reminders that we are but dust and to dust shall we return.
But the ashes are more than remains of palms and reminders of mortality. Ashes are what is left from all the resolutions we made and did not keep, the vows we vowed and broke, the covenants we entered into and found we could not keep. Ashes are, for sure, signs of our humanity, our fallibility, our weakness.
And ashes are reminders of not only things that have been burned up and destroyed, but those that need to be burned. There are things that cling to us like beggar-lice in a winter field: passions that deflect us from our calling, anger that warps our dispositions, self-absorption that blinds us to injustice and cruelty around us, worldviews that keep us enthralled to our own prejudices. We need to cast them into the fire and burn them up. We need to put just enough ashes on our foreheads to remind ourselves that none of these things makes us pretty.
But ashes are not all there is to us. We are not just dust. We are glory, too. The ashes may veil our shiny cross of chrism, but they do not dim it forever. Glory shines through dust and ashes. Dust may bring us to our knees on Ash Wednesday, but glory makes us ache for the God we adore. If we are inspired to seek God, it is the glorious part of us breaking through the crust of ashes wanting to be something truer, something nobler. If we are inspired to love God, it is the glorious part of us erupting from the earth of which we are made, trying to grow, to blossom, to flourish in the light and warmth of our Maker. If we are inspired to serve God, it is the glorious part of us responding to the movement of the very God that came among us as one who serves.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But remember that you are glory, too, and your glory will not rest until it beholds the Author of Glory, as face beholding face.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011