Ash Wednesday: ice to ashes

Last Saturday, I spent far too much time and energy chipping away at the layer of ice that was left behind after I shovelled the snow. I did it because the sun was out and I knew that if I could just break up the ice enough, the sun would do the rest, but that if I left that half-inch layer intact, the chances were that it would not look much different by the time the sun went down.

The power of the sun is an immense natural wonder. I tried looking up the numbers, but they are mind-boggling. Suffice to say that on a cold winter’s day, the sun is sufficient to melt the ice off my southeast-facing driveway – but even then, it could sometimes use some help.

In the old religions some worshipped the sun. We know better, that our Creator and Sustainer is more powerful, more personal, more remarkable and mysterious than the greatest created forces that we can encounter. Still, as I chipped away at that ice, with one eye toward Lent, I wondered whether my work on the driveway could be work as a metaphor for the season.

There is no doubt that God has more power to reach me than I have to reach God. And yet there is something to be said for clearing my heart of ice, for attempting to break up the layers of hardness and chill that have a tendency to accumulate, given the casual coldness of the world and the cynical response of my soul. There is something satisfying in partnering with the power of the Spirit to provoke repentant reflection, and the renewal of a spirit of resurrection. 

This does not have to do with making myself holier. There isn’t much I can do about that: God is the one who sanctifies. It certainly isn’t about making myself look or feel or seem holier; Jesus has plenty to say about the outwardly pious, as do the prophets (Matthew 6:1-6,16-20). It does have to do with paying attention to where I am setting up barriers that prevent me from seeing God, experiencing God’s love, reflecting God’s grace.

Someone, somewhere, has said that sin is whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. That could probably use some further examination (and Lent is a time for self-examination and reflection, leading to repentance), but in essence it rings true. Like the ice that goes before a fall, sin builds on itself and creates further harm. Selfishness engenders pride, and pride begets greed, and greed spawns envy, and envy was the first sin of Cain (Genesis 4:1-8). 

The more embroiled in sin we become the harder it seems to be to turn ourselves back toward God, to face the music. The sun on the ice can appear blinding instead of warming.

The prophet Joel evokes the threat of war and the terror of a people who feel helpless in the face of disaster, natural and unnaturally made (Joel 2:1-2). We see the dust and ashes and the weeping far too clearly in these days. Our sin is ever before us.

Yet the words of the ashes, taken from the words of the psalm (Psalm 103:14), are not a threat but a promise: God remembers that we are but dust. God knows our frailty and our fright, and our fragile faith.

It seems almost that God is not concerned for our shame, which is another form of self-pity. Jesus tells us to wash our faces and not to wallow but to simply to get on with the business of repentance: the chipping away of the ice that surrounds our hearts; to turn away from oppression, from the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil (Isaiah 9-10); to do good instead of harm; to do justice, and love mercy, to put it another way (Micah 6:8).

The work of Lent can be daunting. Self-denial is not an easy habit to establish, and our fasting may be fraught. What is healthful and helpful for us to give up, and what will further harm our relationships with God, our bodies, our spirits? Self-examination can be difficult, and repentance tinged with regret. But reading and meditating on God’s holy Word will remind us that God, unlike the sirens of this world, is slow to anger and full of compassion and kindness (Psalm 103:8). God remembers that we are but dust, and we can enter into that remembrance with God, warmed from ice to ashes, we will remember that God waits for us as a grandmother waits for a beloved child to come home, waiting to wash our faces and settle us down.

Then, the work of Lent is worth it, to melt open that doorway to the Spirit, the comfort of the Advocate, the joy of the Son, and the love of the Father, our mothering God.

Amen.

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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