What are you grilling on this snowy day?” asked my neighbor yesterday, as I stood on our deck monitoring the smoke spilling out of our Weber grill. “Smells interesting.”
“Yeah, it’s just something for work,” I said (and immediately regretted). When he looked puzzled I decided to come clean: “I’m making some ash for an upcoming church service.” “Don’t worry,” I added. “No one was harmed in the making of this ash.” (As is often the case when I start explaining my role as a pastor, my neighbor had no additional questions, smiled nervously and went inside.)
I went back to stirring and then straining the ash, thinking about the strange job and life I lead as a Mennonite pastor. And how humor isn’t always my forte.
Burning last year’s palm branches felt particularly important to me this year. That’s because last year as we waved the palm branches jubilantly while singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” I was not feeling feel jubilant. Some difficult things were happening, which in turn was creating a lot of anxiety, grief and fear. Easter did not bring relief, nor did the weeks and months to follow. Holy Week last year felt far from holy.
So watching the palm branches catch fire, quickly lilt, and then suddenly, just like that, be reduced to ash, I couldn’t help but think about the abrupt endings, injuries, and concerns that this year brought not just for me, but for so many people in our churches and around the world. So much, so many people seem prematurely reduced to ash, and often there doesn’t seem to be anything holy about these violent, abrupt endings, these ruined remains.
While stirring the ash to allow it time to cool, I found myself thinking about The Spirit rattling the bones to life in Ezekiel. I found myself calling forth the four winds from east, south, north and west to breathe new life into me and into these remains, praying that I will once again be able to shout Hosanna in the midst of the congregation and in the midst of this ash-strewn world, believing in new beginnings, new possibilities even in the midst of death and pain.
And as we will soon mix in a bit of olive oil with the ash for our upcoming Ash Wednesday service, I will imagine the tears that Jesus shed over Jerusalem, mixed in with the ash. And we will pray, as we do each year, that this year something of Jesus’ vision of peace will actually stick to us, as the ash sticks to our foreheads.
Come, four winds. Come, Spirit of God.
Note: We will hold a Rainbow Ash Wednesday service at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, February 14. The ashes will not be rainbow-colored, however.