I spent some time on one of our warmer days recently working out in our yard. Winter requires some tidying up, doesn’t it? Ornamental grasses and perennials have to be cut back. Remaining leaves need to be gathered. That pumpkin that I just kind of left there after Halloween should really go away now. This happens naturally through the course of the winter and early spring. Prairie fires create a natural tidying of nature that allows for new and green growth in the summer. It is only through the course of the burning that new life may come.
Tonight, we recognize this ancient and profound truth. We are all from dust. And to dust we will return. It kind of smacks you in the face, doesn’t it? When we are used to a culture that fights so vehemently against the aging and dying process – smooth wrinkles, lose fat, recover your long lost love life – it feels counter-cultural to embrace this talk of ashes and death. But we who are buried in order to walk in newness of life know that there must be dying in order to receive new life. We who celebrate Resurrection know that it cannot happen without death.
Ash Wednesday is a part of our annual tidying up. We gather the old palm leaves, leftover from their green and lush days last Spring on Palm Sunday, and we burn them to create ashes. It is only through the course of burning that new life may come. During Lent, we submit to God’s burning away of our selfishness, our impatience, our xenophobia, our incivility. Because we know that through the process of the burning, we might be raised to walk with newness once more.
Some of you might have already taken a copy of our lightly revised version of our Lenten devotion book from a few years ago. As I opened the document recently to add a submission, I had a profound moment when I looked at the first page. Because it was in book format, the submissions for the first and last entry are printed on the same page. Ash Wednesday and Easter were side by side.
Tonight, we recognize both the death and brokenness of our selves, and the resurrection and joy that we share.
Side by side.
We celebrate that it is only through the burning that new life may come. Tonight, I invite you to submit to the Lenten practice of smearing ashes on our heads as a reminder of our finitude, our selfishness, our brokenness.
But also as a reminder of what happens when the old is burned away.