Often when Jesus tried to explain something about God, he used a story. Jesus told stories from long ago and stories from his own day. When I try to think through the various strains and struggles of Ash Wednesday, I think of a story. But I think of a story from a few years ago.
In 2004 Marilynne Robinson wrote a book called Gilead. The novel takes the form of a long letter from one man to his son. It’s a novel that is really filled stories and memories, with regrets and with hopes. John Ames is the narrator, and he’s a preacher from a family of preachers. In one story, Ames recalls the time that a nearby church had been struck by lightening and burned down. The pulpit was still left, but most of the pews had been reduced to firewood. The people had all gotten together to clean up what remained of the church. “It was like a camp meeting and a picnic,” Ames writes his son. It started raining, but lightly, like a mist. The people sang hymns like “Blessed Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” They gathered up all the burned books, and made two graves for them, one for the bibles and one for the hymnals. The minister said a prayer over them. The women put the food out while everyone kept working. Ames describes what it looked like with the rain so gently covering all that had burned. “The ashes turned liquid in the rain,” he says, “and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another.” Ames remembers that his father brought him a biscuit that was covered in soot from his father’s hands. When the child looks at it, his father looks back and says, “Never mind that.”
He says, “There’s nothing cleaner than ash.” [p. 95]
Nothing cleaner than ash.
That sounds strange. Most of us will wash our faces later, to get clean. Ashes seem to stain and are dirty, it makes little sense that they might be clean.
And yet what we enact today has a lot to do with our being made clean. We take on ashes as a sign of penance, as an outward expression of what we might sometimes feel inwardly. That we have done bad things. That we have misused God’s gifts. In just a few minutes we take on ashes and say Psalm 51. The ashes begin to clean. We pray a litany of penitence, and they clean a little more. And then we hear words of promise. We are promised that God pardons and absolves, that we will be forgiven, that God forgets our sins. We hear the promise that we can be made clean, that we will be made clean. And so, there is nothing, really, cleaner than ash.
In the Gospel, Jesus assumes that his disciples will be taking on various spiritual disciplines. He doesn’t say, “If you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.” Jesus says, WHEN you give money, WHEN you pray, WHEN you fast. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. There’s no need to show off. This is not a spiritual competition. Rather, be honest. Learn humility. Put your heart in the right place. Come clean.
Lent began as a season of preparation, and it was especially meant for the preparation of those to be baptized at Easter. At their baptism, the brand new Christian was be outfitted in a white garment– a new, clean, white garment. The Church says to these people, whether adults or children, “you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ so that you may have eternal life.
The Good News for us is that this promise is not just for those being baptized. It is for all of us who are open to God’s grace and forgiveness.
Beginning with clean, black ashes, in this new season, may we be made holy and new.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.