My friend Ian told me that when he was in 6th grade a volcano erupted in his hometown of Alaska. Guess what day it was? Ash Wednesday. He said, “We were sitting there in school, on a day like any other. And then the sky broke, and we realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong. It was an everyday Wednesday like today.” Ian remembers being scared. There were all kinds of newscasts, warnings about ash inhalation and property damage. They were cooped up inside and restless.
Then a few days later he looked out of the icy window of his house and noticed that it had started to snow and snow and snow. It snowed all day and all night. When he woke up Sunday morning to go to church the mountain was no longer gray, the trees were pristine white. He said here and there he could see reminders of Wednesday; under the eaves and on people’s foreheads. A reminder that something had been terribly wrong and yet, was no longer.
Purge me with hyssop, wrote the Psalmist, and I shall be whiter than snow.
At various points I have felt ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. It can be a haunting thing to be on the giving and receiving end of the imposition of ashes. The words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” don’t roll off the tongue very easily. (Neither does the phrase “whiter than snow.” For too long the color white has been associated with purity and superiority, as if darker colors were somehow bad or lesser than.)
During one of the more memorable Ash Wednesday services an older gentlemen looked me in the eyes after I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and he said, “thank you.” Thank you for what? I thought. Who wants to be reminded of mortality?
“They are a curious thing, ashes; they are terrible and remarkable by turns,” writes the great Jan Richardson. She continues:
“Ashes come as a reminder of the ways that humans across history have been horrible to one another, of how we have, with an awful finesse, reduced to literal ashes one another’s homes, buildings, cities, histories, and very bodies. Ashes can also be a thing of wonder. Ashes—dust, dirt, earth—are the stuff from which we have been made, and to which we will return. Ash Wednesday, and the season it heralds, seeks to ground us, to make us mindful of the humus, the humility, the earthiness of which our bones and flesh are made. And yet, in the midst of this, the season calls us to open ourselves to the God who brings life from ashes, who works wonders amid destruction, who cries out and grieves in the presence of devastation and terror, and who breathes God’s own spirit into the rubble. It is this God who breathes into us, calling our awful and glorious ash-strewn selves to speak words of life and freedom and healing amid violence and pain.”
And so…..I plan to bring ashes to the Taizé service Wednesday at 5:45 pm. I will offer ashes to those who would like to receive them. And with a mixture of trepidation and hope, uncertainty and trust, I will ask someone to place ashes on my forehead.
Last night I took the liberty to set these said ashes in the snow, hoping that our snow-wrapped ground would breathe life into these ashes, into us all. May it be so.
Another friend Sam has written this beautiful reflection on Ash Wednesday. Check it out.