Why Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
--Jonah 3:6 NRSV
I think I’m too suburban to understand Ash Wednesday.
I grew up in the suburbs, while my parents grew up on farms. Their idea of moving up in the world meant being among the first in their families to get a college degree, to take white collar jobs and to live in a place where someone else grew and produced the food they ate each day. I never had my own livestock, grew my own crops or picked my own fruit (except for annual trips to an apple orchard). My food came from weekly trips to the supermarket, and the food there (if it really was food and not made in a factory) came from some mysterious place of which I had no firsthand knowledge. So, the seasons of planting, growing, harvesting and preparing to do it all over again are lost on me.
If I did have experience with agriculture, Ash Wednesday might make sense to me. Ashes would not just be something leftover in the charcoal grill or the fireplace, but rather the result of burning away the chaff left over from harvest time to provide nutrients to the soil for future growth. The biblical idea of repenting in dust and ashes is not an end in itself but a means of burning away what is no longer life-giving and preparing our souls for future growth.
Minister and author James Wind writes:
Lent begins with cold dark ashes and ends in Easter with the spark of bright new fire. For people with no awareness of the ancient practice of burning the fields so that new crops have room to grow, the season has an unnatural feel to it, quite the opposite of its original meaning. For us, ashes seldom carry any other significance than death and tragedy. Small wonder that most in our society turn the other way when clergy get ready to mark foreheads with an ashen cross and say, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
For people like me, a generation removed from the farm, the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” have a finality to them instead of a promise of new life. The reminder of mortality seems once and for all rather than an annual event; linear rather than cyclical. I fear death as a negation of life instead of seeing death as a necessary part of living. So, I cling to stuff, behaviors, patterns of thought and lingering resentments which are like chaff, leftover stalks and husks, doing no good laying on top of the soil, preventing new growth. They need to be burned away, so the ash can filter into the soil, so the dust can regain nutrients for new healthier things to grow.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are not a condemnation or a mark of tragedy but an invitation to new life. When our spiritual ancestors in the Bible mourned and repented in ashes and dust, there was no expectation they would remain in that spot forever. Instead that time of ash and dust was a necessary precondition to reconciliation with God, with their community and with themselves. Just as they burned away the chaff of last year’s crops to grow new ones, so also times of repentance led to new life.
In the comedy we know as the Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet gives the bad news of divine judgment to the city of Nineveh. Upon hearing the news, the whole city repents and even the king joins in with dust and ashes. Seeing their actions, God forgives them and withholds judgment. Jonah is disgusted at God’s mercy, because he was ready for the fire and brimstone. Jonah missed God’s invitation to new life. In the end, God uses the brief life and sudden death of a plant to teach Jonah the lesson that God wishes new life for all people.
Perhaps, I’m like Jonah (maybe you are too?) seeing ashes as a sign of God’s disfavor rather than God’s invitation to new life. The ashes of Ash Wednesday aren’t an ending brought about by our mistakes but a beginning brought about by God’s grace. Death is a friend we welcome, because it marks the end of things we no longer need, things which hold us back from really living. This truth reoccurs all through our lives until we finally let go of all we no longer need for our eternal new life to be complete.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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