A Pile of Ash

Ash Wednesday
by Elvis Perkins

No one will survive
Ash Wednesday alive
No soldier no lover
No father no mother
Not a lonely child

In the up and in the bedroom
A black and white of the bride and the groom
Will bring me to my knees
With the colorized bad dream
That takes its place on
Ash Wednesday

So each day is Ash Wednesday
All this life is Ash Wednesday

A pile of ash can be a powerful image.

What was once life is not broken down in to a very fine dust, ready to return to the earth and begin again.

For Ash Wednesday, we too prepare ourselves for this same cycle of death and life. If we are to join in the work of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus announced was “at hand” in his ministry then we must first be ready to die.

If we are to receive the good news, of which Jesus proclaimed by his very life among those who were rejected by society, the we surely must be ready to deny ourselves in order to follow him.

On Ash Wednesday we are reminded that self-examination, limitation, self-discipline and penitence are all deeply Christian words, but they are also counter-cultural words, words that subvert a society based on hoarding, accumulating and binging.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40 day period the church calls “Lent,” which is Latin for the number 40. These 40 days are taken to be a time of intensified self-examination, reflection and self-discipline in which we, the church, prepare ourselves for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In order to receive that new life, the life that breaks forth out of the ground, just as the shoots spring forth from the thawed earth in the spring-time months.

It’s hard to remember just a short time prior, those seedlings were buried in the earth.

A pile of ash: dust you are and to dust you will return.

We must face our own mortality, our own brokenness and need for healing if we are to ever be healed. That is why we stop for Ash Wednesday.

Do I recognize my own need to be healed and am I able to ask God, and others to heal me, forgive me, and help me when I need it? Do I live a life that allows space for God to move and live within in me, or are my own life goals, my own concerns or fears crowding this out?

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we must let go, and that there is a deep truth hidden in the phrase “dust we are and to dust we will return.”

Traditionally the ashes are used to mark the sign of the cross on the forehead. The ash comes from the palm leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. This connection to last year’s Lenten practices reminds us that our lives are like cycles, we do not experience life in a linear fashion, we do not learn something once and then move on, we continue to return to life’s deepest and most important truths. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we must continually come back to the very basics of who we are and whose we are. That we must embrace the wholeness of life, the difficult with the joyful, the life along with the death that comes with being human beings.

Too often in our society life is treated with little sanctity and death is ignored, feared, or celebrated (if it is an enemy who falls). The Christian story is one that challenges all these sub-texts and gives us a different story to base our lives on. We are to embrace the mystery of life and death, of darkness and resurrection.

Life is a miracle and death is not something to be feared but to be understood in the context of Christ’s own resurrection from the dead.

How will we embrace the pile of ashes before us in the next 40 days?

How will we create space for self-examination, confession, limitation and discipline, opening ourselves up to God in ways that have been hard for us to do in the past?