The Memory of Ashes

Ash Wednesday © Jan L. Richardson

[For the Transfiguration Sunday reflection, scroll down or click here.]

Readings for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

All week the scent of orange blossoms has been coming through the bedroom window. The smell is rooted deep in my memory; I come from generations of citrus growers. I think that even if I had grown up far from the groves whose fragrance infused my childhood, something ancestral in my blood would stir at the scent that has been attending these past days.

Earlier in the week, the scent of orange blossom was tinged with smoke. There’s a fire blazing to the north of us. It’s just one of more than 60 active wildfires burning around our parched state, but it’s a doozy: about 25 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center, it has scorched around 17,000 acres of land. They’re calling it the Iron Horse Fire, so dubbed by a supervisor at the Florida Division of Forestry who named it after a bar in Ormond Beach that’s especially popular during Bike Week. “The fire is not near the bar,” the Division of Forestry’s website emphasizes. “It is much farther south, but the supervisor figured he would be at the fire instead of the Bike Week events, which started Friday.”

Here on the threshold of Lent, the scent of blossom and blazing offers a vivid point of entry into the coming season; a sort of olfactory invocation for the days ahead. More than any other season of  the liturgical year, Lent draws us into a landscape that is distinctive for the ways that it intertwines extremes and calls our attention to how brokenness and beauty, horror and hope dwell intimately together. We will see this exemplified in next Sunday’s gospel reading, which takes Jesus—and us—into a stark wilderness where Satan comes to visit, but where angels do, too.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this bittersweet season. Ashes are the first sign and symbol of Lent, but they are not the final word. Come Wednesday, we will bear this mark of what has been left behind from the burning, this reminder of the dust and earth from which we rise and to which we will return. Yet even the ash—which in many churches comes from burning the Palm Sunday branches of the previous year—has a memory of its own. Deep within its darkness and dust lies the imprint of green, the memory of life, the awareness of what has gone before and of what may yet be.

Ash Wednesday propels us into a season that inspires us to learn once again that what God creates and graces and blesses may be beset and broken but not destroyed. Life finds its way: ancient memory takes hold, follows the path of the ash, inscribes itself anew, beauty blazing from the wreck and ruin. “We are treated…as dying,” Paul writes in the Ash Wednesday reading from the Epistles, “and see—we are alive; as punished and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

And you: here on the threshold of Lent, amid the ashes, what do you possess? As we enter this season that pares our lives down to what is absolutely essential and basic and elemental, what do you hold as most important? Is there anything you need to allow to become ash, that it may be transformed into something new? Beneath what seems dying or destroyed, what life might yet take hold?

Blessing for Ash Wednesday

So let the ashes come
as beginning
and not as end;
the first sign
but not the final.
Let them rest upon you
as invocation and invitation,
and let them take you
the way that ashes know
to go.

May they mark you
with the memory of fire
and of the life
that came before the burning:
the life that rises and returns
and finds its way again.

See what shimmers
amid their darkness,
what endures
within their dust.
See how they draw us
toward the mystery
that will consume
but not destroy,
that will blossom
from the blazing,
that will scorch us
with its joy.

[For previous reflections on Ash Wednesday, please see Upon the Ashes, The Artful Ashes and Ash Wednesday, Almost. To use the “Ash Wednesday” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

P.S. I’m posting regular reflections over at my Sanctuary of Women blog during Lent and would be delighted to have your company there as well!

Resources for the season: Looking toward Lent

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