What Good Are Ashes?

Scripture Reading:
Psalm 51

What good are ashes? Peculiar at best is this imposition of mealy black crosses on foreheads in the name of penitence. Taken at face value (pun intended), this may be one of the oddest expressions of Christianity extant, ranking up there with white smoke signaling another pontiff elected. Again I ask, what good are ashes in a world that condones war, winks at poverty, denies slavery, allows ignorance, and fosters fear? It would seem that we have more important matters with which to occupy our churches, but Lenten ashes have stood the test of time because of their powerful visual contrast to our culture’s obsession with more, more of everything, more of anything. Ashes remind that brokenness is the prerequisite to anything of spiritual value. I turn to Christ during Lent because I remember what it’s like to be me. In brokenness I find healing and in grieving I am qualified to rejoice. Pablo Neruda, that magnificent poet of Chile in the twentieth century, wrote: “Let us uncork all our bottled up happiness.” On Ash Wednesday we begin to remember where we put it. Happiness is hiding behind each splintered relationship, crouching just there in distended shadows of the towering twins regret and remorse. As we identify the origins of our pain and contemplate the consequences of our rebellion against the Grace-maker, forgiveness comes in waves. Small consolations followed by expanding relief and, ultimately, a crescendo of restoration.

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