Ashes mean the end of something. A house burned down, a body cremated, a book torched, a fire dying low.
Ashes come out of the flame, and flame means destruction. Destruction like a wooden city scorched and left in a heap of blackened beams. But also purification, like young forests rebirthed in once-charred woodlands.
When volcanoes explode in earth-quaking eruptions, dripping lava and belching clouds of smoke, they drop a scalding blanket of ash wherever the wind blows. Volcanic ash is made of pulverized rock, fiery mineral crumbs superheated in the oven of the under-earth. Magma, gas, and flaming glass lurch upward and outward and every which way. Sometimes planes get diverted; sometimes forests burn; sometimes telecomm networks lose their signal; sometimes everything and everyone around dies.
Ash falls turn the sky hazy. You can’t see the old blue heavens behind the fog, which starts yellow, then goes black. The air itself becomes gritty. There is a rain, but it’s not real rain: its snowflakes of hot soot. The smell of sulfur pervades. People who have experienced ash falls say the world becomes intensely quiet, everything muted by coverings of ash. The world goes dark and silent. The earth feels dead.
Ash is the remains of something gone.
Ash is what corrupt men get when they hear footsteps coming and they burn all their documents. Ash is all that’s left: the destruction – but also the memory – of the evidence of creation’s depravity.
And so it is for us.
The ash pressed into your forehead or your wrist or your soul, clogging pores and drawing sunlight and heat with its heavy blackness, reminds us of our sinfulness and the need for repentance. The ashes say, “Guilty…”
…and, at the same time, announce confession.
The ashes tell us we’re mortal.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s what the faithful say. They know ashes, dust, mud are the lowest common denominator. We are all, ultimately, cremated – our bodies incinerated by time and decay, turned to ashen flakes in the hearth of earth.
But the faithful know another thing about those dearly departed. They know what comes after ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The final verse. The higher chord, crescendoing not in the grime of earth but in the silk air of new creation. They know we return to ash and dust in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
So as much as putting ash on our bodies signifies our death, even more it signifies our new life. It tells us the fact of who we were and the hope of who we have become.
For God is a God who wields flame. He has at the same time the love of Venus and the fire of Mars. And don’t we know? A fire devours before him!
But in the heat of the divine furnace, he refines all lesser metals into pure gold.
And that’s what we are to make of this Ash Wednesday business! It’s symbolic of a very real process. It doesn’t say, “Look at me! Look at the ash on my head and my hand!” In fact, if we look only to ourselves, we will see that, like the ash, we are fading away.
Instead, Ash Wednesday says, “Look to the Flame.”
The ash is the pouring off of the dross. It’s the pruning of old, dead vines.
And out of lifeless superheated atoms, out of the dust beneath his feet, out of the ash criss-crossing on our foreheads, God makes all things new.