Ashes to Ashes

The acrid smoke of dried, burned palm leaves is a different way to start the day.  Watching the flames lick at the fibrous material, gradually leaping upwards towards my fingers.  There is a hypnotic aspect to the process of making Ash Wednesday ashes.  Figuring out how to tease apart the individual leaves folded in dryness so that the flames can burn more thoroughly, waiting to see how far up it will burn before it dies or I have to let go.  Noticing the faint wisp of condensation when I exhale that is quickly surpassed by the curls of grey smoke.  I suppose that being a guy, fire has been a source of enchantment for me since I was a little boy.  The warnings were true then and now.  If you play with fire you get burned, and it’s only the illusion of control or the extent of our immunity to pain that keeps us from seeing this.

The palm branch from last Palm Sunday.  The ironic reminder of the fickleness of my heart.  One moment abounding in joy and gratitude for yet another of the Lord’s abundant blessings.  The next moment wrapped up in the selfishness of my needs and wants and perceived injuries.  One moment gently teaching 100 grade school kids about the symbolism and significance of the tradition, the next moment cursing any number of drivers in my path on the freeway.  Fickle indeed.  Hosanna! one moment, Crucify! the next.  I understand that crowd, as I watch the leaves bend and burn into ash.  I am that crowd.  I am burned through and through. 

Eventually the smoke is finished and there are enough ashes to work with.  I crumble and grind them up into more of a powder, pouring them into a small bowl before adding a little water and a few drops of scented oil.  I tend to gravitate to myrrh or frankincense, but this year I choose spikenard.  The aroma is intense and sickly sweet, the smell of death covered over.  My death covered over.  My ashes made beautiful in the burial oils.  He never needed the burial oils for himself, but He shares them with me in this way.

I observe God’s creativity in the many different types of hair and foreheads and eyebrows He creates.  How many different textures of skin.  Things I generally don’t notice leap out in the close-up encounter with a very small area of another person.  The hesitancy of young children receiving them for the first time; a strange and radical departure from the hip-hop youth group culture they are already being engulfed in.  An ancient tradition without a synthesized, auto-tuned voice.  No flashing lights.  Strange and foreign and perhaps even dangerous?  The weary smiles of adults who have borne the ashes year after year, each year the weight growing heavier as their own strength wanes.

I am that crowd that calls Hosanna! and Crucify!  But I am also more than this.  I am made more than this as the grace of God is poured into my life.  As forgiveness infuses the ashes of my deserved death, and for the space of this lifetime coexists.  Sin and grace.  Judgement and sainthood.  The ashes and the oil together until death parts us.

For death remains my destiny, but it is not my entire destiny.  God chooses to bring sweetness even out of death – to his glory, not mine.  He rescues me not because I deserve to be rescued but because He is glorious and merciful and loving.  The smart ass in the classroom is quick to joke – If sin ultimately works to God’s glory, maybe we should all get busy sinning some more!  I was that smart ass in the back of the Confirmation class.  I still am, though now I’m more often in the front of the classroom.  St. Paul shakes his head wearily.  We are such predictable, broken creatures, even across two thousand years.  What shall we say then, smart ass?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  Should we sin more to increase God’s glory?  Don’t be a maroon!  (Romans 6:1-2a, liberally paraphrased with apologies to Bugs Bunny)

The consequence of sin is death.  The glory of God is mercy, mercy despite my stupidity and culpability.  Mercy to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear would say.  And if I am truly giving thanks to God for that mercy, truly standing in awe of that mercy and how I don’t deserve it,  I can’t in the same breath seek to sin more.  I am fickle, but just like a computer, the illusion of multi-tasking is just that, an illusion.  I can only be doing one thing at a time.  Very quickly perhaps.  Hosanna! to Crucify! in less than a week seems slow in the age of instant everything.  But only one thing at a time.  If I sin, I do it to my glory, not his.  If I am truly aware of his mercy and glory in the moment, I can’t sin.  If only for that fraction of a second.  More often than not all someone will see in me is ashes.  But every now and then, in the midst of the bitter smoke, there is a faint whiff of perfume that is so unlike me that nobody could confuse me for the source.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But not forever.  Only for a time.  The sweetness of God’s mercy will make even the bitterness of death transient.  Beyond death, the ashes are wiped away forever, and I will be clean and white and alive forever, to his glory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s