This year we should be feeling blessed by a “late” Lent and Easter season. Instead we have been surrounded by so much cold and damage and dirt of a season that has assaulted us that we are surely ready for the ashes of it to blow away with the next strong gust. So the new life of spring can start.
While different times in the church year can signify endings and beginnings, for me perhaps Lent is my favorite. Today we receive ashes made from the palms of last year’s Hosannas, and they are also ashes of everywhere the journey took us after Palm Sunday. A whole year of places of love, truth, patience and kindness. And places of affliction, hardship, sleepless nights and hunger.
All of it burned away to dust.
What starts out like a giant leafy palm, becomes the small amount of dust in this dish. There are actually a few palms that became our ashes. But even if we had all the palms we waived last year, there would be room in that dish.
I think it’s a concrete way of seeing that we cannot store up the praise or the glory we think we’ve achieved. We cannot hold onto that dust.
But are also reminded not to hold onto the pain of the times that we really messed up or where someone really hurt us.
Let that dust blow away.
This is my third year to work with our dust. And at a fundamental level my comfortableness with the ashes reminds me of how it all comes to this dust. You see, they don’t teach us how to make ashes in seminary.
My first year, I had little idea how to make the right ashes and I got lots of unhelpful advice like what my internship supervisor said- let the sexton do it. I fussed and fussed to get it right- not to crumbly, not too oily. I made a huge mess and ended up with far more ashes than we needed. Enough for decades of Ash Wednesdays.
But once mixed with oil, they don’t keep. Last year’s oil is pretty nasty. In spite of all the fretting, if you do not remember those ashes, that is a grace. If you do, sorry.
My second year, there were so many things going on that I waited until the last minute. I was so preoccupied and as a result, they were not fully set- too spare for the early service. Barely a cross maker at all. If you don’t remember that, that also is a grace. And if you do, let it go.
This year, I put a little oil in the dish and dumped in the ashes and walked away. When I came back later, a couple stirs and they were ready. Which probably means there should be a whole lot less of me, and all the things I hold onto. And a whole lot more of God and God’s timing. After all, God is used to making things from dust. And making something from what feels like chaos.
These ashes remind us where we’ve been and yet invite us into a season that’s about working through the chaos. To get to what’s essential. What is not essential is burned up or blows away. Jan Richardson writes that Lent challenges us to reflect upon what we have filled our days and lives with. To see what habits and practices, possessions or ways of being have accumulated, or taken over. Where is a pattern of chaos threatening to block our seeing the presence of God?
Each scripture passage today invites us to ponder what our practices are and which ones we have given ourselves over to. And which ones God calls us to- individually and as a community. To pay close attention to the rhythms of our lives to see which practices draw us closer to God and which pull us away.
We ask God to create in us a clean heart. Lent asks- What is the state of your heart?
What has taken up residence there?
Are there habits or ways of being that you are so invested in or attached to that it is difficult to see new places God might be inviting you to move into?
Out of the good and the bad and even the ugly of a year, God is creating a new path that takes those ashes and makes a new path marked by a cross. Making beautiful things from the dust.
On this day and throughout this season may see more clearly what is treasure and may our hearts be open to the unexpected life that only God in Christ can bring. That cross-it’s the only thing that we truly need.
And because of our loving God it’s the one promise we can be sure of.