Ash Wednesday 2016, Feb. 10: "Ashes and What Rises Up From Them"

Ash Wednesday 2016: “Ashes and What Rises Up From Them”

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            Ashes have taken on a whole new meaning for me since our Memorial Garden was created.  Pastor Mark & I have reserved a niche in one of the columbaria, so it sure looks like I’m committed to being cremated.  “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” hits even closer to home now that I know where my “ashes” (cremains) will probably rest and now that we regularly inurn cremains in the columbarium or place them in linen bags and bury them in the garden.  I used to see our cemetery as the past.  Now I also see it as the future!  A very personal future.

            Speaking of ashes – we heard a couple days ago from a friend at Holden Village that the charred tree trunks and ashes left by last summer’s Wolverine Creek forest fire are blanketed under a beautiful, thick mantle of snow.  In the spring, even before the snowmelt is complete, we can predict that green shoots of fireweed will appear.  (It got its name in honor of being the first thing that sprouts on the forest floor in the wake of a forest fire.)  We can also anticipate that there will be a fresh  crop of pine seedlings.  In a way they should be called the resurrection pine, because the cones only release their seeds in the intense heat of a forest fire.  An inferno prepares the way for a nursery….

            Here’s a reflection on ashes by my favorite fictional detective, Dave Robicheaux.  Dave is a caring man of deep faith, troubled by PTSD from his Vietnam experience; he’s a good guy who occasionally slips out of sobriety and who feels deep remorse for his failures in love and moral shortcomings.  (This is from the novel Creole Belle.) 

I called in sick Monday and spent the early morning hours raking leaves in the backyard.  I piled them in stacks by the water’s edge and soaked them with kerosene and set them ablaze and watched the curds of smoke rise through the trees and break apart in the wind…  I wanted to take every misadventure and wrong choice in my life and set it on fire with the leaves and watch it burn into a pile of harmless ash.1

The ashes in this dish are literally composed of last year’s palm branches but to me they also represent the ashes of our sin incinerated by God’s mercy.  Remember all that shining, all that radiance, all that light blinding us in last weekend’s Scripture?  Well, imagine God’s gaze as laser-like, looking upon our sin and making it go up in smoke. 

I hope God has also touched a match to the tinder of my self-righteousness and made it flame up and go away.  For me to receive ashes is to remember I’ll be reduced to cremains some day and also to take seriously the advice given in the Book of Sirach:

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.                  Sirach 7:36

The myth my self-righteousness told was that I could “get it right” on my own, that I don’t need a Savior.  But I do.   I’m not a phoenix who can rise up from my own ashes.  I must be raised by the One who experienced death and is now the Living One.

            The first lesson from Isaiah tells us in no uncertain terms, though, that it’s not enough to rue our wrongdoing and seek God’s forgiveness.  That’s a good start, but ultimately we must choose a path that leads us from love of God to love of neighbor.  Outward observance, public religious practice, including worshiping on Ash Wednesday, important though it is, isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. 

Our worship of God begins in the sanctuary but isn’t complete until it’s lived out in the world.  We can’t park our faith in the pew and leave it there until we return.  We have to carry faith in our hearts out into the world as surely as we carry ashes on our foreheads beyond these doors when we exit.  Living faith accompanies us and shapes our actions wherever we go and whatever we do.  The best way to repent of what we’ve done wrong is to go forth and do what’s right!  The best way to make spiritual restitution to God for our sin is to go forth to love and serve our neighbor!

Going back to the beginning: seeing every day the place where my cremains, my ashes will rest some day, could be depressing except that when my eyes sweep further right I see the cross on the side of the church building and then the steeple rising over the sanctuary, drawing my eyes to heaven.  I have resurrection hope that when my earthly life ends here, there will be everlasting life up ahead.  Our Lord’s death on the cross makes that possible; I welcome the cross of ash traced on my forehead today as a reminder not just of my sin and of my self-righteousness but of my Savior.  The closer we walk to Him this Lent, the more life-giving the journey will be.  Who knows what will rise from the ashes?  Amen

1James Lee Burke, Creole Belle (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 380.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham