How many meanings do ashes have? When I woke up Wednesday morning, ashes were on my mind. Outside, snowflakes were falling softly early in the morning, and for all the world, I couldn’t see them as other than falling white ash. Snow and ashes: both the frailest of substances, coming apart, changing shape, under the slightest shift in the wind. Ephemeral. It was an association that followed me through the day. Later as I burned palms in a coal scuttle in the church parking lot, while snow fell around me, the illusion continued, that I was standing in the wake of a great fire, and ashes were falling. The palms burned quickly, but wind was blowing, and stirring the charred leaves up and into the sky. I remembered the ashes of Auschwitz, ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ashes after 9/11, floating through the street canyons of a terrified New York, ashes of forest fires drifting in every direction, ashes of the dead emptied into rivers and lakes, and oceans around the world, ashes of dead friends in vases, sitting on cabinet tops, the ashes of my father, in a plastic bag, in a small box, ashes, too, of campfires, and smudged faces and hands, ashes in the fireplace, cold, and waiting to be swept up. All those ash heaps, Job’s, and the rest of the world’s; I lost track of time, and then the palms had burned, and the snow was cold, and only a few minutes had passed.
Here at St. Paul, yesterday, we observed Ash Wednesday with two services, one at 12:00 noon and one in the evening beginning at 7:00 p.m. For the last few years before the evening service, we’ve been gathering in the Undercroft for a simple meal of soup and bread. I’m always happy for this gathering, since Ash Wednesday is such a solemn beginning. It’s good to have the fellowship of others to begin this season. The soups are all made by people from the congregation, and range from traditional delicious winter soups like corn chowder and pea soup, to wonderful concoctions of kale and white beans, non-gluten, non-wheat, and vegan soups. This is not a food column, though. It’s about the comfort of sitting down with a bowl of soup, when you know the people who made it, and who carried it from their kitchens to the church, and who are sitting down with you to begin a season of repentance. We are in this life together; we are in this season together. And soup, bread, confession, and ashes, brought that fellowship deeply home.
The day before Ash Wednesday, I spent some time with an interfaith group of friends. One of them, a non-Christian, asked me: “If you could explain the meaning of Ash Wednesday in one sentence what would it be? And if you could explain the meaning of Lent in one sentence, what would it be.” I used these questions for the sermon/meditation on Ash Wednesday. But I continue to think about them, and will probably continue to think about them throughout the season. It was a good question, to try and distill meaning down to its core, its essentials, and then rebuild it back up again. I asked each person at worship to think about the questions: what is the meaning for you, and can you put it into words? And then, we took some time in silence to ponder the ways we might enter this season. Today Lent is underway, and I’m mindful of Lent’s three disciples: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. May this deep, thoughtful season greet you all with new depths of grace.