God is great at teaching through paradoxes, things that at first, seem totally absurd. Jesus does his best to explain how they are true. The contradictory proposition of Ash Wednesday is how ashes not only cleanse, but prepare space to light a new fire.
When people aimed to humble themselves before God, the would sit in ashes or pour them over their heads as if to say, “God, I am worth nothing like these ashes that will never again find use. I am discarded, unable to be reconstructed by any way I can figure out. God, please help me.”
These are the exact words of people suffering from addiction, abuse, severe depression and guilt. Like the Old Testament sinner, they are humbled before God, so defeated that they feel there is nothing to do but identify themselves with garbage. If we were to take sin and lost souls as seriously, we might conduct our Ash Wednesday service at a landfill. Instead of burning palm branches to obtain black ashes, we would have torn open black trash bags.
Today’s OT reading sets a scene of darkness, gloom, even blackness implied as God’s wrath. The people had committed blatant and hidden sins part and parcel to their daily lives. Stubborn sinfulness had stained the beauty of a relationship with God and between each other. God envisioned humanity as attractive and healthy looking.
Speaking of attractive and healthy looking, I won’t ask you to raise your hand if you color your hair because I wouldn’t want you to give any secrets away. My hair is naturally very silver and leaving it naturally adds about twenty years to my perceived age.
I am now in the same category as Glen, a hair customer of mine from the eighties. He had a band and was also on camera for his job so naturally, he wanted to be attractive and healthy looking. To him that meant keeping his hair, beard and mustache dyed black. I would carefully brush on the color, making every possible attempt to avoid his skin. Of course, that was impossible.
You’d think with every chemical at their disposal that there would be a professional product capable of removing color stains. There are, just not that work well against black. I would soak cotton balls and do my best but Glen would still look like a clown who had stuck the lower half of his face in the back of the cannon that fired his clown friend out the front of it, like at the circus. Not exactly what Glen or I envisioned as attractive. Neither of us was willing to allow him to walk out of the salon looking that way.
This was before you could Google hack solutions to life’s problems. Out of sheer desperation, we tried an old fashioned remedy, using ashes. It didn’t make sense, as paradoxes seem not to.
I would leave Glen alone while I tended to other matters. He would stand in front of the mirror repeatedly dipping his fingers in a bowl of ashes and then vigorously rubbing his skin. Believe it or not, the black stain came off with ashes. What a radical solution.
Ancient people, also did something radical with ashes, out of desperation. But now we take a modern not-so radical approach. We have a church ritual that imposes ashes upon your forehead. In the Christian church, imposition literally means the laying on of hands.
Many Ash Wednesday services focus more on human mortality than sin, because, let’s face it, people are more comfortable admitting that they are not going to live forever, than talking about the stain of sin.” Because I don’t mind tangible signs of how precious life is and how imminent death can be, for several years now, I have used wide scotch tape to transfer the ashes from my forehead to a place where I can continue to see them throughout the year. I have this one in my Bible and another near a wall mirror.
That way, when I look at my forehead wrinkles, instead of thinking, “I wish I could afford some Botox,” I am reminded that God has marked my forehead both with the ashen symbol of death and the sign of new life using the water of baptism. If you’d like to make your own keepsake, I brought a roll of wide scotch tape and can help you. Know that your entire being, your life as you have lived it, for better or worse, is a keepsake that never leaves the mind or sight of God.
God’s solution to denying aging and death isn’t a temporary one that leads to a false sense of enhanced self-worth. God’s solution does more than erase unpleasant signs of sin, it creates newness. Darkness is not merely covered up, but replaced with the light of Christ. The ashes are a sign of how nature and time will fail me, but God never will.
The imposition of ashes also unifies God’s people throughout time. A few years ago, during an Ash Wednesday service, I opened up an ELW to see flakes of ashes pressed into the crease of the pages. It was like finding pressed flowers. A sign of beauty that told me that someone else stood there holding that hymnal and was getting ready to sing, just as I was. Was it a year, or two or ten since they fell from their forehead and got captured for time immemorial.
It was a visible sign of God’s presence and imposition at another time, a reminder that God and the Church has continually spoken to every generation. Think about how God offers grace and a solution to sin that really changes people’s lives.
During Lent, God’s desire for you to identify with your sin might expose some dark stains. You might be shown proof of you trying to cover up imperfections in your own way. We sometimes do our best to artificially restore a previous state. It might be the look of youth or innocence, but neither lasts long. Terrible times we go through in life do stain us. Coming to church offers one solution to looking spiritually healthy and attractive. During Lent, ask yourself if coming to church and proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ is a cover-up or a sign of new life.
Like ashes, our sins are dirty in and of themselves, but God will use even your sins to remove the darkest stains of stubborn sinfulness that won’t come out any other way. They already mar you though you tried to avoid them. When you confess your sins before God, the Holy Spirit offers you a radical solution, God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness even removes stains you will acquire in the future. No matter how you try, you can’t remove them, but God can.
Ashes connect us to God and each other not only by sentimental notions of preserving them in an urn, a necklace or hymn book. Ashes connect us to God and to each other because we both are scattered to the wind and waves in order to travel to destinations unknown.
We are also connected by imposition, the laying on of hands. The pastor will leave a thumbprint upon your forehead. None of us are like and yet we share with ashes, the most elemental thing that exists in the universe, Carbon. The coolest thing is that we are also all connected to God who is beyond the concept of existence.
We are connected through all things paradoxical and earthly, black and white, dirty and clean, useful and worthless. God uses them all to teach and prepare us for an incomparable life better than we could possibly determine for ourselves, no matter how attractive and healthy-looking it seems to us.
It’s true, that ashes cannot be reconfigured into any new thing, especially a new living thing. But God can do that. Lent is the time to sift through your ashes and then clear them away the from wherever you are storing them. Your mind is like a fireplace, grill or crematorium that needs to be swept clean in order to light a new fire.
Like the Third Day song, Till I am a Soul on Fire, “Lord, restore the joy I had; I have wandered, bring me back. In this darkness lead me through, til all I see is you. God, I’m running for your heart. Lord, I’m longing for the day, when I am a soul on fire. Lord, let me burn for you again. Let me return to you again.”