Why All the Ashes?

Angelus On-Line Newsletter • St Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, New York
by Father John Beddingfield

 

I was lucky enough to be in one of Professor Frederick Shriver’s classes at General Seminary just before he retired. Father Shriver is not one to keep his opinions to himself and I especially recall his thoughts about ashes. “You know what I'd do if I were the rector of a church?” he asked our class. “You know what I’d do? I’ll tell you what I’d do. At the end of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I’d be at the back door with a big washrag. As people left the church, I’d wipe the ashes off their forehead and remind them of the words of our Lord, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them”  (Matthew 6:1).

Father Shriver had no time for religious pretence or hollow religiosity. His sentiments are profoundly biblical, echoing the preaching of the prophets and the teaching of our Lord. Given this strong criticism of outward piety and given that at Saint Mary’s we will offer ashes all day on Ash Wednesday, we might well ask ourselves, “Why all the ashes?”

Because ashes are a sign, they are a reminder, and ashes are an invitation.

Archaeologists tell us that the people of Israel were not alone in using ashes in rituals of purification. Ashes appear in Phoenician burial art and Arabic expressions. Ashes were a sign of grief, mourning, humiliation and penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among the ashes. Cursed and overrun by enemies, the Psalmist “eats ashes like bread, and mingles tears with drink.”  Ashes are what are left after destruction. After chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain.

Ashes also remind us of a common origin. The second chapter of Genesis tells of how we were created from the dust of the ground. Though we may spend our lives trying to distinguish ourselves from others, running after success and trying to feel different from others, the dust and ashes remind us that we are all made of the same stuff. We are reminded not only of our beginning but also of our end. On the First Day of Lent, ashes are imposed with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Those words apply to us all.

While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us to repentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life. Isaiah brings glad tidings to the people of Israel, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.”  Ashes are not the end but are just the beginning. They begin a season that moves us through silence and longing into a season of joy and
resurrection.

On the Last Sunday after the Epiphany the music will be celebrative and the mood joyous. The alleluias will echo for the next few days, until we reach the quiet of Ash Wednesday.

On that day, may the ashes we receive be a sign of our humility and our penitence. May they remind us of our individual sins and the complexity of corporate sin. But more than anything, may the ashes invite us into God’s presence, into God’s love and into God’s gift of new life.

Ash Wednesday
Ashes to Easter