Hope in the ashes

There is hope in cold ashes.

We do not “do” Lent, we do not approach the fast as those who have no hope, or as though who fear the fire. For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God will remember God’s people, recollect the promises shown to them in the incarnation of the Christ.

There are enough reality shows around these days for all of us to know that, for the survivalist, to awaken and find that the fire has gone out and the ashes are cold strikes fear into the heart. But we are not survivalists. We are mortal, and we owe our lives not to our own skill and cunning but to our Creator, our Redeemer, our God.

Many of us grew up in a religious tradition where guilt was venerated to the point that we were encouraged to make more of it, to supplement those powerful feelings with manufactured dismay; but Jesus encourages us not to make a display of guilt, nor a show of shame. Guilt, we notice, is strangely close to pride: those who parade their penitence really want to show off their own survivalist skills in the most spiritual way possible.
Sometimes we cling so hard to our sin, to our shame and to our burning guilt, as though that is what makes us whole. We define ourselves, even our faithfulness, by the temperature of our guilt, running hot, as though feverish penitence alone could save us. That is when the cold, gritty ashes strike fear into our hearts.

But it is not, after all, our own guilt, or our shame, nor even our penitence that saves us from the fire. It is God. It is only in God that sin is transformed into sorrow, into regret, repentance, renewal. It is only in God that death is transformed into life. It is only in Christ that the cool ashes of the morning are recollected, not so as to return them to the fire, but that they may be refashioned into something new.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of William Wordsworth. Maybe it’s the early advent of the daffodils. I have been remembering his musings about poetry: he has said,

that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.

I think of the tranquillity of the ashes, cool and collected after the flooding fire. There is hope in the ashes.

There is hope in the ashes. Gone is the guilt and the burning shame; nothing is left of the passions that fuelled the fire and fanned its flames. Recollected in tranquillity, in the promise that greets repentance – the promise of new life, second chances, reconciliation; recollected in tranquillity, our sin no longer has the power to burn us up.

These ashes, these symbols of our mortality, these mortal remains of creation are symbols, too, of God’s life working within us.

In the beginning, when the human was made out of the dust of the earth, God’s breath stirred its dusty origins into life, and the human was transformed into something new, and something intimately connected to the life of God.

In his Incarnation, Jesus rekindled this connection. Living dust, he moved among us, he burned with passion, he cooled his body in the tomb. And in the cold light of the early morning, he recollected himself anew, and we have seen his resurrection.

Ashes are not afraid of the fire. They have nothing left to fear from fire. There is hope in the ashes, in their spent energy, their burned-out passion. Reduced to their essence, they know that there is one hope for new life, and it does not consist of going back into the flames. Instead, the ashes find new life dug into the earth, feeding the bulbs and the soil, producing crowds of daffodils. They find new life by feeding new life in those other creatures of the same God.

Deeds of loving kindness, of mercy, of justice, to feed the world with goodness; this is a Lenten fast fit for the ashes.

I invite you to a holy Lent. I invite you to a season in which, cool and collected, we are able to face the ashes of our broken lives. We can sift through their debris without fear of getting burned. And we can get ready for something new; some new thing which God longs to lead us into.

I invite you to a Lenten fast which looks forward to a new day, new life with the resurrected Christ.


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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