What Kind of Ashes are Those Again?


Wednesday (Photo credit: teachernz)

When I was a little girl being raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, Ash Wednesday scared the bejebus out of me. It was all the fault of this line:

“Remember man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Some time in elementary school but before middle school, I’d learned of cremation. At first, I was sure these Ash Wednesday ashes were the cremated remains of Lord Jesus Christ, in some sort of mystical way similar to communion wafers and wine being the body and blood. I quickly abandoned this theory for one involving the cremated remains of recently deceased faithful church members. Cringe, smear, cringe, slump back to pew– alternately thinking that I never wanted to touch my own forehead again and wondering how soon I could wash off poor Mrs. Smith, who had passed away the previous fall.

Wow, was I relieved to learn later that my morbid imaginings were blessedly far from the truth. In the Roman Catholic church, those ashes are made from palms from Palm Sunday. In the Episcopal church, the ashes are made from olive branches. I’m not sure what Methodists or Lutherans or other observing denominations make ashes from, though I did once have a minister confess to me that his ashes were made of notebook paper, since he couldn’t find any palms.

I think the palms to ashes has some wonderful symbolism. The palms on Palm Sunday are waved for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we all know how that turned out. Seeming victories can turn into major defeats, but sometimes those third act plot reversals are followed by miraculous recoveries. It’s a good reminder that even the most joyful events and plans can crash and burn. Repentance, re-assessment, perseverance faith, all these help us through the dark times.

I’m reminded of part of our Winter Solstice celebration:

“What happens in the dark?

Seeds grow in the dark.

Babies grow in the dark.

We rest in the dark.

We get ready.”

(Julie Middleton, excerpted from “A Winter Solstice Singing Ritual” Emerald Earth Publishing, 2002)

Our focus in modern society is on feeling good and being happy. Nothing wrong in that, but a little self-examination and time spent getting one’s life in order is time well-invested in future happiness. That’s why I prefer to think of Lent as “40 good days”, not “40 days of miserable deprivation and suffering”. Those 40 days take work, though, to make them meaningful and useful. Plodding is not recommended.

My spiritual path is much different than the majority of people celebrating Lent. No matter what your faith or spiritual background, if you celebrate Lent for these 40 days we are on a holy journey together. Blessings to you all, and welcome to Lent.

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