There is a burning that takes place in every Christian life. Each of us, the people of baptism, was burned with the brand of the Holy Spirit and "marked as Christ's own forever." Each of us, people of bread and wine, takes into our bodies elements that have been baked and brewed with heat and fire. Each of us, faithful seekers of the truth of Christ's Gospel, has know the moments of burning when, like Isaiah, we know we are "people of unclean lips," and yet the live coal of the Holy Scripture is placed on our lips as we proclaim Jesus Christ. In each of these encounters with the holiness of God, we are burned, and there is ash left.
Do you know how ashes for Ash Wednesday are made? Every few years, when Barbara Forsythe was our Altar Guild directness, she would set about making ashes. Bringing a bucket, lighter fluid, long-stemmed matches and more than a bit of courage, we would set out for the gravel parking lot to burn the last year's dried palms. This year, on Shrove Tuesday, we burned palms together as a community, offering slips of paper with prayer intentions mixed in with the long palm fronds and the crosses. It made quite a quick blaze. But once the ashes are gathered, they must be ground by hand in an old fashioned mortar and pestle, then spooned through a sieve again and again until they are reduced to black dust.
Dust and ashes are usually negative things in our world. Think of the dust that we constantly clean
(or not!) from the tops of our furniture. Dust collects dramatically on the many screens of our computers, TV's and other electronic equipment. There is a tremendous business in fans and filters that collect dust. Ashes are the blackened evidence of the loss of someone's home or business, of natural habitat gone up in flames, the residue of candles and fireplaces. New devices are invented every year to help us clean the dust and ashes from our homes and habitat.
But it always comes back, doesn't it? We are in a constant cycle of sweeping up the decay that is all around us. And then today, we willingly place a mark of ashes on our faces for the world to see. We ask to take on the dust and ashes, to collect the evidence of death and destruction. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Today we embrace the dust of the earth and recall that these mortal bodies will not last forever. All the cosmetics, creams, and potions; all the diets, exercise classes and spa treatments will not keep the dust away.
Still this is not a message of despair, but in the best sense of the upside-down Kingdom of God, a message of hope. The ashes give us perspective and hope, for we are here, and the burning of the Holy Spirit has been given to us to dust away and consume what passes and refine what endures. The fast of Lent is not a fast to serve our own interests, but a refining fire that helps us embrace our own basic needs so that we might embrace the needs of others. There is plenty of dust in the world that we are called to address. There are ashes in the lives of others that we are called to take upon ourselves. The prophet Isaiah tells us the truth: " Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?....You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer to streets to live in."
Lent is not kept by the individual alone; it is not for us, but for the work of the Kingdom. We are invited to be strengthened to participate in the work of the Gospel; to open ourselves to a continual burning by the Holy Spirit. This is not easy or always pleasant. It can be painful and uncomfortable. We are God's ashes--burned, pounded and sieved into a fine powder, ready to be exposed in the shape of the cross for the whole world to see.
Anne+ is the Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Lappans. She says,