Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
February 9, 2005 (Ash Wednesday)
Psalm 51:1-17; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I have always been fascinated by fire. I’ve always found the flames almost mesmerizing and sitting inside in front of a fire on a cold winter night while the snow falls outside is a very relaxing experience.

One of the things I have always been most fascinated by is what happens to the logs that are placed in the fire. When the fire is really hot, the logs themselves begin to glow bright red and the embers are enough to combust anything else placed in the fire. But when the fire is burned out completely, there is nothing left but ash.

The shape of the logs is no longer evident. Nothing resembling wood is left. The logs are utterly destroyed and all that remains are ashes. Gray. Bleak. Lifeless ashes.

It is no coincidence then that ashes have been used in penitential rites from the days of ancient Israel up until today. Ashes that symbolize death and decay. Ashes that remind us of our own mortality—even as we are surrounded by a culture that often denies or ignores the reality of death. Ashes that remind us of the dust from which we were formed and the dust to which we will all one day return.

These are the ashes we put upon us today.

Ashes made out of last years palms, waved on Palm Sunday. Ashes symbolizing the sheer and utter ruin of the Hosannas we sang on that day. And yet, there is something about ashes that gives us hope.

Ashes are often used in gardens and in composting. Ashes—particularly wood ashes—contain potassium, phosphate, boron and other elements. They can be used as fertilizer and to increase the alkalinity of the soil. The volcanic ash of places like Hawaii produces some of the riches, most fertile soil in the world. Producing some of the most beautiful plants in the world.
Even in our times of ruin, there is always the hope and promise of new life. Even in times of utter devastation, when nothing even resembling our former lives remains, we can yet glimpse fertile ground, where things can grow anew.

Lent is such a time. A time of penitence, a time of reflection, a time of preparation. A time when we contemplate our mortality. When we contemplate the places of brokenness within us. Fasting, praying, engaging in acts of charity. And yet Lent has no meaning apart from the promise of new life that stands at the end. Our journey on the road of ash leads us to the Garden, and to the Empty Tomb, to the promise of Resurrection that awaits us all. So that we may join in the traditional English prayer, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

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