As Ash Wednesday approaches, I find myself resting on thoughts of the ashes in our lives. The times in my life, and likely in yours, when all has become ashes despite our best effort. This life never seems to work out perfectly, and yet it is that imperfection that allows for the deepest transformation in our lives. It is the ashes that always forge the coming blessing. Even though at the time of ashes, the blessing seems so far removed.
Many times over the years, I have burnt palm branches in my backyard, praying fervently that I am not the cause of the next major wildfire in North County. Dried palms spark very quickly. I burn them safely in a grill, so that I can quickly slam the lid down if things get out of hand … which has happened. Such is the nature of this life. Sometimes things get out of hand. And when I dare reopen the lid, the ashes lie before me. That is the moment when the blessing begins.
This process has become a holy action for me. I am thinking of you and of last year’s hosannas and of all that has happened between the times. I am anticipating the sacred duty Pastor Sam and I share, to lay those ashes on your foreheads with words of dust. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In earlier years, it felt a death sentence, but now it feels to me, the blessing of our shared humanity. We are indeed made of the dust of the earth; frail, weary and often weak. And yet we exist, the scriptures tell us, “a little lower than the angels.” Crowned by God in our weakness, with grace, mercy and joy. Our hearts beating for the sake of the neighbor’s need. Our hearts prepared to break, in sadness as well as in joy.
I never feel alone on Ash Wednesday. For we are connected that night in the deepest part of our shared humanity — our mortality lived in daily grace. Each of us bearing an outward sign of that truth; a roughly traced cross made from ashes born of palms. We all look similar on Ash Wednesday, wearing the same cross. Our stories different, our paths our own, yet joined in the common breath of the Holy Spirit and the truth of our mortality. We have this one precious life; each of us and all of us. I am so blessed to live my one precious life in your company.
The sign of Ashes is the visible mark of a cross once traced in water on your baptizing day. When a pastor said, “You dear child of God, have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
That is what I see in your eyes on Ash Wednesday; that you are marked by the cross in joy and in sorrow. Marked by the cross on the day the diagnosis is cancer and on the day Christ carries you finally home. Marked by the same cross on your wedding day and on the day your child graduates from college. Marked by the cross as you sit alone on the beach and marvel at the persistent power of the waves and the peace that is yours.
Beloved child of God, you have been marked by the cross of Christ forever.
Blessed Lent and God bless you on the journey.