Ashes and coaldust

Of all the symbols that we use in the Christian year, the ashes of Ash Wednesday might be at once the most unambiguous and the most strange.

A wise colleague was recently heard to remark on the popularity of “ashes-to-go” services, that if people don’t yet know what we are all about, then greeting them on the street with the admonition that they are going to die might not give the greatest first impression.

And yet it’s a phenomenally popular movement amongst people who are in the know, who already know that we’re all going to die, and that God loves our silly, fragile, mortal little lives anyway.

I think that’s the key. Ashes work for those who know already that God loves us. For those of us who know how much God loved the world – that God gave Jesus Christ to live and die for us, so that we might know how much God loves the world – for those who have already heard this good news, the gulf between the ashes of the grave and the promise of salvation is profound, and deserves to be marked, acknowledged, lived out even if only for one day a year.

We spend a lot more time thinking on the promise than on the perdition in which we would find ourselves without it; and rightly so, because the economy of God’s love is in charge of creation, thank God.

We talked a little at this morning’s service, those of us whose parents sometimes told us, in the months before Christmas, that if we didn’t behave, then our Christmas stockings would feature a piece of coal, or that our present would be a sack of coal – dust and ashes in the making, nothing more, nothing less.

Most of us did not believe our parents’ blandishments. Most of us had enough experience of forgiveness, or simple forgetfulness, to believe that by Christmas morning, our sins would be left behind and our reward would be wrapped in shiny paper under the tree. Most of us.

But all of us paid attention, nevertheless. Because the secret that we would never tell was that we knew that we deserved that coal – for telling a lie, for breaking a plate, for coming home late, for breaking our mother’s heart, for failing to love our sister, our uncle, for taking it out on the dog, for hiding uneaten food, torn and dirty clothing, bad grades, for fighting, for falling, for falling short. We grew up knowing our shortcomings, knowing that no one’s perfect. No one’s perfect.

Is it too childish to suggest that the ashes we wipe on our heads today are in a way our reclaiming of our sacks of coal, the dust and ashes which we know that we deserve, which we know that God, our perfect Parent, will not leave us holding in place of the gifts of grace and love which are the promise of the Gospel?

Because although no one is perfect, God is, and God loves us perfectly, healing our brokenness, lifting us up when we fall, blessing our little efforts at love and mercy, steadfast in God’s own mercy.

Do you remember that cartoon which used to proclaim, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”?

It’s pure ashes.

Love gives us permission to say we’re sorry, to own up to our sorry little selves, our sack of coal sins, our misgivings and our mischief and our misery, safe in the knowledge that love forgives, love restores, love heals.

I think that it is worth remembering that it is not God who places the ashes on our faces on Ash Wednesday. We do it to ourselves. We line up to be marked with the signs of fasting and repentance, confident in our forgiveness, otherwise we would still be hiding in our shame. We are able to own up to our ashiness, our coal-dust characters, because we are assured of the embrace of God.

We line up behind Abraham, arguing with God, pleading his case although he told himself he was but dust and ashes. We line up behind Job, marking his pain and sorrow, sitting in the dust and ashes. We line up behind Jonah, the reluctant penitent, and David, ashen with guilt and with grief, all of whom God restored, raised up rejoicing, when all was said and done.

We line up to be marked with our sorry, sad sack of coal dust and ashes, and we confess our sorry stories, and we hear God’s forgiveness, absolute absolution, wiping us clean, wiping our foreheads and our eyes and our hearts, restoring us to grace, absolutely.

May you know a holy Lent, filled with the grace and benediction of the knowledge of God’s embrace, now and in the life to come, beyond the dust and ashes.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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