You may have seen or read about the “ashes to go” concept. Some of our sister churches in the diocese, as well as churches across the country, are taking ashes on Ash Wednesday to public spaces like Metro stops, subway platforms, and city squares. The idea underscores the theology that God is alive and well in the world, outside the bounds and expectations of the Church. There are arguments for and against offering ashes “to go,” but I’m less concerned about where and when one gets ashes. I’m much more interested in where the ashes go afterward.
I don’t mean the literal, physical ashes we receive on our forehead. They can stay or go, depending on one’s personality and piety. Some are comfortable wearing their ashes in public, a gentle reminder that today is a holy day. Others may feel that by wearing their ashes around town, they risk what our Gospel describes as “practicing [their] piety before others in order to be seen by them.” (Mt. 6:1) Again, whether to keep ashes on or wipe them off is an individual’s choice and only you know what works best for you and allows you to be most faithful.
But I’m interested in what happens to the more symbolic ashes we receive. As a symbol, the ashes are more than burnt palms. They bring with them a deep, rich, multi-layered meaning, perhaps an archetypal meaning. When we receive ashes, we are made one with our ancestors—of all faiths and no faiths— who have known the truth that “we are dust and unto dust shall we return.” When we receive ashes, we are made one with all of creation. We acknowledge our mortality. We acknowledge our shortness of life and our lack of control over the universe. We confess our sin.
But then, after we have taken on the symbol, the meaning, the depth of ashes, what do we do with them? Do we internalize them? Do we project them onto others? Or do we allow God to take them away?
Some may be tempted to internalize the ashes of Ash Wednesday, to see in the ashes yet another sign that we’re bad and God is mad, and there’s nothing much we can do about it. Ash Wednesday can be harmful if one has a tendency to focus too much on one’s failings and shortcomings. The Church calls this “scrupulosity.” “Scrupulum” is the Latin word for a sharp stone, the kind that might make a stabbing pain on the conscience. Scrupulosity also suggests one’s taking a kind of pleasure in the pain. This is getting stuck in sin, and it’s simply another side of pride—one’s imagining that one is beyond the pale, outside God’s mercy, unlovable and unforgivable. But this is not the point of Ash Wednesday. What we do today is exactly the opposite—we say we are sorry in order to be forgiven. We confess, in order to be absolved. We die to self, in order to be raised in the image of Christ.
While a few might be tempted to internalize the ashes of this day, others might too quickly project them onto others, thankful that “those people” are finally saying out loud how wicked they really are. Praying like the Pharisee in the Gospel, we can quietly give thanks to God that we’ve been pretty good, while looking across the room or out the door, thinking “those people really should be in here, confessing their sins and seeking pardon.” “They’re the ones who really need Ash Wednesday, bless their hearts.”
But Ash Wednesday is not about internalizing the ashes or wishing them onto others. Instead, Ash Wednesday is about allowing God to take our ashes away, to turn them into dust that is blown away and folded back into creation.
Sara Miles writes about sin and the power of forgiveness:
“…I knew,” she writes, “how quickly even my stupidest, most ordinary sins could drag me into a spiral of misery. I’d be mean, or lazy, or selfish, and feel bad about it, and so I’d become meaner, less able to get up, less interested in thinking about anybody else. That inward-driving force, which takes the mind prisoner and locks the soul in solitary confinement, nourishes even the smallest sin and makes living with it, essentially, hell.
And the only way out of it, on Ash Wednesday as on any day, is repentance. Not feeling bad, but changing. Not pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but allowing Jesus to gently spit into a handkerchief and scrub off your face.” [City of God: Faith in the Streets, p. 116]
A few days ago, we burned the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday in order to make ashes for today. We put the palms in a big bowl, struck a match, and then we placed the bowl on the ground. But what made it interesting this year is that the ground was covered with snow. Four or five inches of deep, clean, white snow stretched out in every direction. Snow surrounded a bowl of burning ash. What a great image for today, for what happens with God: our sins, our mistakes, our failures, our disobedience, all is gathered up and place, as it were, in a bowl, out in the open before God. But in God’s eyes, like a little clump of ash in the middle of snow, our sin is a speck in the midst of a field of forgiveness just waiting to envelope us.
“God forgives all our sins and heals all our infirmities;
God redeems our life from the grave and crowns us with mercy and loving-kindness.” (Psalm 103:3-4)
As we receive ashes, may we allow God to wipe us clean. May we know the power of God’s forgiveness even as we become more forgiving of others.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.