"Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen." (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 265)

These are the words of blessing spoken over the ashes which are to be imposed on worshippers during the Ash Wednesday worship which begins the season of Lent.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of smudging ashes on someone’s forehead: making the sign of the cross-a most holy and meaningful symbol-by using something which represents violence, death, and waste. I mean, ashes are what is left over from any great conflagration. Ashes represent loss to me. I think of that home down the street from where I grew up. One Halloween night it was burned to the ground. Almost nothing was recovered; all was turned to charred timber and ashes. I recall the day the woods not far from our home in Arkansas caught fire. A controlled burn gone wrong. Hundreds of acres reduced to nothing. I think of the images I have seen of Mt. St. Helen’s blowing up and the falling ashes which blackened the sun. I remember the horror of the twin towers and those ashes of ruin, violence, and death which covered the streets of Manhattan.

But then I also know that ashes can be, as the cross is, sacred. They hold memory and the promise of rebirth. Sacred, precious memories come from the ashes of homes destroyed by fire. Surely the ashes of 9/11 are most holy indeed, are they not? The souls of the righteous smothering our innocence? But what does it mean to have ashes smudged on our foreheads this one time each year?

I guess that it helps me to remember that all of life is precious and holy and that one day all life turns to death. But it is the cross which transforms that death into life once again: everlasting life. I am reminded that I come from the great swirl of life which is this universe and there is connection in this for me. And here is connection to Christ as well, whom the powers of death cannot overcome. For this reason I appreciate being marked with the sign of the cross in ashes: I am part of the great continuum of the life cycle of all existence, an existence created, maintained, and redeemed by God.

What a fitting way to begin our Lenten journey: as we are reminded of our connection to the fragility of life we are marked with the sign of hope which transcends the ashes of death.

Wishing you a blessed Lent!

Link to RCL Lectionary for Ash Wednesday

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