I love the down-to-earthness of our religion. Jesus told us to use things like bread, wine, oil and water in our faith lives. He would fill these mundane things with spiritual power, and even with his own Presence. Yet sometimes in our worship we recoil from using language that is seen to be too earthy.
“Remember you are dust…” The words come from Genesis 3:19, and the ceremony of ashes finds its roots in the ancient tradition in the Middle East of the throwing of ashes over our heads to signify repentance before God. I like the idea of reminding ourselves of our humble origins and dependence on God. Ashes bring us down to earth.
The ashes are put on in the form of a Cross, and so we are launched on the way of Lent. This way will lead us to Calvary, and there we leave ourselves at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. In his dying breaths he cries out over us, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do” – and we hope that the “they” includes you and me…
And because it does include us, we will then journey on past Calvary through an empty tomb in a garden. The Father lifts up His Son, and on his shirt-tails, as it were, we hope we can hang. New life, new hope, are possible for the sinner - and life eternal beckons.
Eventually we will arrive at the Fire of Pentecost, when we once again remember that the same God who made us and redeemed us, also wants to literally fire us up. We are whipped into new liveliness by the winds of God. We are reconstructed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. And so the journey that will start this Wednesday in ashes, symbol of ending, of finality and destruction, will lead us to bathe once more in the warming, inspiring and purifying flames of the love of God.