Even when it is white and new, a cigarette is destined for only a brief and tenuous enjoyment. Soon its glow gets stubbed out and only the powdery ash lingers behind. They are dirty when they’re used up – no fire, no smoke, no use.
Any definition of ashes will always include some reference to something that has been burned or ruined or exhausted.
Ashes are about the best way to describe ‘used up’.
Ash Wednesday has just passed and perhaps you engaged in the tradition of having a cross of ashes smudged on your forehead. Perhaps you are committed to fast from something during the 40-day Lenten season, giving up chocolate, TV, alcohol, gossip, whatever. Good for you – too much of anything is bad for you (except meatloaf, you can’t have too much of that).
Once again this year there were some churches providing quick, easy access to Wednesday’s ashes, even a drive-through for those too busy for the usual liturgical service. Part of me is glad that ancient traditions are being made relevant and available to as many as possible, but another part of me wonders if our need to hurry is the bigger problem. Are we that self-important that we can’t find time to pause our busy lives and see beyond ourselves?
You see, ashes and fasts are not about getting healthy or feeling good or becoming more spiritual. Seriously. Lent is not about our success or elation. Lent is about reality. Lent is about surrender and admitting our human need for God. Lent is finding a way to remember that we are exhausted and used up without God.
Ashes are not popular in a world too busy to stop and think; ashes are unwelcome when we spend all our energy on ourselves. What ashes do is remind us that we are fragile, broken, sinful, and that our lives are temporary.
At a graveside the minister reads, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and for the briefest moment the mourners comprehend that it is a literal truth. They stand as first hand witnesses that we have no control over returning to the ground.
In scripture there is reference to another way of humility – repenting with sackcloth and ashes. Stripping our earthly coverings and sitting upon the ashen ruin we have made of our life. That’s why Christians have such a deep connection with the biblical idea of repentance – coming to the end of ourselves and accepting that all we have is God.
This process of reminding and repenting helps us face our realities rather than avoiding them. That is exactly how God operates, of course – he takes our humility and our weakness and redeems it. We are nothing without God, but everything to him.
The season of Lent begins with us smeared with hopeless ash on Wednesday but ultimately we find our way to Easter where a loving, forgiving God takes responsibility. Jesus’ resurrection transforms the same ashes of humility and makes them fertile ground for life.
I’ve been ‘used up’ a few times myself and I’ve got to tell you that beginning with your ashes is the only way to God.
In our Creator’s hands ashes become new life. That is the story of the Easter season.