Ashes in the Wind

There are no two ways about it. Ashes are messy. The ashes we use on Ash Wednesday are what is left after the Palm Sunday palms are burned. We use a disposable aluminum foil roasting pan placed int he fireplace to burn and collect the ashes from the dried palm branches. They burn quickly. Then the ashes are sifted to remove any unburned stems or other large pieces. The fine ashes are placed into a jar and stored. Sifting the ashes is messy. Some are spilled every time. Pouring the ashes into the jar is messy, some are spilled in the process.

On Ash Wednesday, I take the ashes out of the jar with a teaspoon. It doesn’t take too many ashes, in a small dish. I add a bit of oil so that they will make a smudge on the skin of worshipers. Mixing the ashes gets the spoon messy. Because of the oil, it takes detergent to clean up the mess.

I use a thumb or forefinger to place ashes on the foreheads or the back of the hands of worshipers. My hand gets covered in black ash. The ashes smear on the skin of the worshipers. Sometimes they sweat or rub the place where the ashes have been placed. It’s messy.

We offer ashes as a gift, not as an obligation. Some worshipers choose not to have ashes applied.

It is, for me, a powerful experience. People come to me one by one. I touch each one. Together we have a brief moment of reflecting on the simple fact that we are all mortal. Babies and elders. We all are mortal. Some die young. Some are old when they die. However it occurs the elements from which our bodies are made are simple and of the earth. Wether or not cremation is chosen as the method of dealing with the human body, it is messy. This life is messy.

And the wind will scatter the ashes.

When I sift the ashes, some are lost. When I pour them into the jar, some are lost. When I mix them, some are lost. When I apply them to worshipers, some fall on the floor and are lost. When they are scrubbed from foreheads and hands they go down the drain and are lost. The ashes I wore on my forehead last night are gone.

It is a challenge to think in those terms when it comes to people. I touch strangers and friends on Ash Wednesday. Our moment together is unique. The exact same gathering of people will not occur again. A student goes off to college. A marriage ends in divorce. Funerals occur. People get different jobs and move to different communities. The church that I serve is constantly changing. People are coming and going. The events that seem so important to us at the time are forgotten and even the ones we clearly remember fade and combine with others.

When I close my eyes and remember the parade of worshipers who came before me last night, I am already remembering other Ash Wednesdays, other faces. I am aware not only of the one who came, but of those who were absent.

Life in a community has its messiness. People make mistakes. Tempers flare. Feelings get hurt. Things are taken personally. Tears flow. We have this vision of a community where all are welcome, where diversity is celebrated, where old and young share equally, where all are respected and treasured and loved. And our community is imperfect. Sometimes it is messy.

I’ll spend a bit of time this morning cleaning up ashes.

I’ll also shovel some snow that, if left where it is, would one day melt and flow down the driveway. But if I don’t shovel it, it will become ice that makes it nearly impossible to drive the car into the garage. It will be shoveled. More will fall. I’ll shovel again. Life is like that.

Not long ago I had a conversation with someone who said that they didn’t like the emphasis on sin and guilt that is a part of the way they perceive the church. The person thought that it would be better to raise children without teaching them about sin. I wondered what it would be like to raise a child who didn’t know how to apologize. Would that child somehow feel better when a mistake was made? How does that child get over events that threaten relationships? Maybe sin is the wrong word. Maybe the way that guilt has been misplaced in the church over the years is destructive. But to raise a child without a notion that you can make amends and get beyond a beach in a relationship seems unkind to the child. Children long for relationship. When something occurs that creates a rift, they are eager to return to relationship. Saying, “I’m sorry,” is a good first step when you are sorry for what happened.

But, contrary to the perception of this person, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not primarily about sin and repentance. We do assess our lives. We do admit that we feel sorry. But the focus is much less on sin and much more on our common mortality. We get only one life to live and it is, whether we die young or old, a relatively short span of time. As the Psalmist wrote, “Whether the span of our life is 70 or 80 years, they are filled with trouble. They are soon over, and we fly away.” It is like ashes in the wind.

I remember standing on a windswept bluff in the Missouri Breaks overlooking a ranch in Montana. We scattered the ashes of my aunt and uncle. The wind was, as usual, strong enough to make them disappear quickly. Some touched the ground at our feet. Some traveled quite a distance before resting. Now my cousin, their son, has died and the remains of his body have been entrusted to the land. A smudge of ash on my forehead reminds me that I will soon join them.

In the meantime, I choose to live in a community and part of life in that community is for me to say, on occasion, “I’m sorry.”

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!