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I remember the flecks of ash on my car, that afternoon this past November. The reddish tinge in the sky; the smell of smoke in the air; and those little white flecks of ash all over the car roof and windscreen. Landing everywhere, of course, but visible especially there on that flat surface, against the blue paint. It was from the Camp Fire in Paradise, of course. I’d only seen those little white flecks one time before: a year earlier, when I was still living in the East Bay, and the smoke and the ash were coming from right here in Sonoma County.
It’s said that Lent goes from ashes to fire; it begins here at Ash Wednesday and ends with the new fire of the Easter Vigil. But ashes and fire, these symbols we use during this holy season, are pregnant with added associations here in this community. Given the events of this past week, we might add water to the list—I wonder if we’ll hear those readings about Noah’s flood and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea differently when we come to the Easter Vigil this year. But today our symbol is ash: a symbol of repentance, of lament, of mortality.
Just a few days ago we interred the ashes of our dear sister Natalie Griffith outside in our Memorial Garden. It’s always a profound experience to bury a person’s ashes in the ground. Our columbarium here in the Marian Chapel is a wonderful thing, but when we inter people’s ashes there we’re kept at one remove from the elemental reality as we slide a metal urn gently into its resting place. But in the Memorial Garden we see the ashes as they go back into the earth from which all of us came: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In the ancient world it was common to put ashes on one’s head as a sign of repentance. And that’s what we do today. But following tradition, we don’t just put ashes on our heads in any old way. Instead our foreheads are traced with the sign of the cross—the same sign of the cross each of us receives at our baptism. As you come forward to receive ashes today, let yourself feel that baptismal cross on your forehead, activated afresh.
It’s good that we trace the ashes in that form of a cross. Because what we do today includes repentance, where that’s appropriate, but it isn’t just about repentance. It’s about identifying with Jesus Christ, who became flesh with us. He took on our own earthy, dusty flesh, and in doing so he made it holy. Our bodies are united with his in our baptism, and his life flows through us.
Remember that you are dust. But not just any dust. You are holy dust, molded by a Creator who loved you into being, and who will never give up on you or abandon you. No fire and no flood can get between you and God’s love. Nor even can sin, for there is no sin too great for God’s love to heal. So come forward in faith and trust. Enter into Lent in simplicity and holy, solemn joy.