One of my brothers observed recently about our dear mother, lying in the hospital: “There’s no meat on her bones, and no bones under her skin.” Osteoporosis, multiple fractures and 95 years of life truly lived are revealing her mortality as her bones wear out and her body fades.
She’s being made into ashes; but there’s something beyond ashes, because she is all fire. Even as she weakens into death, her soul reaches out to us to comfort and inspire us.
We know that the dust from which we are made comes from beyond the stars. Before there were ashes, there was the breath of God. The earth is filled with the glory of God, and so are we the creatures he formed from the dust, breathing his Spirit into our nostrils.
Yet we, his people, turn away from God, love and life; we die and decay. What makes us not decay but become ashes of glory bursting to new life is the fire of God in us. It is ours to claim amid the ashes.
The church asks us to begin Lent by letting someone touch us with ashes. “Remember,” we are told at the moment of being touched.
Remembering means letting something be present to us, holding it inside ourselves. Our ears hear the word, and our skin feels the touch. “Remember”: Let the truth of who you are be present to you.
We are touched with ashes, to help us be present to our bodies that die, to be present to ourselves who turn away from the One who gives us life. It’s deeply physical and utterly spiritual.
It allows us to feel the despair that lurks within us (see Heb 2:15). Yet the church never asks us to taste despair without first being bathed and swathed in hope. It tells us we cannot look at ourselves except as loved, claimed and renewed by God in Christ.
Ash Wednesday begins our journey to the cross and passion of Christ, not only as historical events (which they are), but also as real moments in our own lives of faith.
We walk this journey because we know and experience its end: his resurrection from the dead, in the flesh, and his gift to us of exuberant life. These, too, are historical events that we already proclaim and live together.
Ashes are the gate into the Lenten pathway. It’s not to teach us about death — we know that already — but about love that is stronger than death. This is the word the world desperately needs to hear and touch. This is life eternal breaking into our present suffering and pain.
The ashes themselves remind us so because they come from the branches of Palm Sunday, the prelude to last year’s Easter alleluia, set ablaze. It’s as though when we receive the ashes we glance at each other with a little secret laugh, like children hiding but laughing because they know they soon will be found.
It’s the journey we undertake in accepting the ashes that marks our need of God and our path to glory. Each of us is given the sign, the words, the gift of life and offer of renewal in Christ. All of us are given these together. We are meant to accompany and help each other along the way.
This secret is hidden in the words accompanying the ashes offered to us all. “Remember you are dust” means remember God who made us just as we are out of nothing but his own love. Remember, be present to that infinite love that is also the fire inside us. In those ashes breathes the fire of God.
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(Marrocco is a theologian, writer and practicing psychotherapist. She is involved in spiritual formation of seminarians and lay pastoral workers in Toronto and founded St. Mary of Egypt Refuge, a place of hospitality and welcome for people in need. She is an ecumenist who specializes in the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity.)