Ash Wednesday: The Hands that Hold the Ashes

Image: Blessing the Dust © Jan Richardson

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

My husband’s ashes are in the keeping of my brother. Scott is holding onto them until the day I can bear to gather them up and release them. On that day, we will bury Gary’s ashes on the farm that has been in the Richardson family for more than a century; the farm where, on a bright spring day so recently, Gary and I were married.

You can imagine that Ash Wednesday will feel different for me this year and always. The sheer fact of Gary’s ashes poses questions that stagger me and make me ache: questions that I am working my way through ever so slowly, questions for which I do not anticipate ever having answers.

In the midst of my struggle and sorrow, what I keep seeing are the hands that hold the ashes—my brother’s hands, and the hands of those who, in gatherings around the world next Wednesday, will trace the sign of the cross on each brow: sign of repentance and release, sign of stubborn hope. If I never make sense of the ashes and their awful and aching mystery, I can hold on, at least, to the hands that bear them, and that bear me up in these days.

How about you?

Blessings, blessings to you as Lent draws near.

Will You Meet Us?
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

Will you meet us
in the ashes,
will you meet us
in the ache
and show your face
within our sorrow
and offer us
your word of grace:

That you are life
within the dying,
that you abide
within the dust,
that you are what
survives the burning,
that you arise
to make us new.

And in our aching,
you are breathing;
and in our weeping,
you are here
within the hands
that bear your blessing,
enfolding us
within your love.

—Jan Richardson

2016 update: “Will You Meet Us?” appears in my new book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. You can find the book here.

An invitation into Lent…

During Lent, most of my creative energies will be going toward the new online retreat that I’ll be offering for the season. I would love to have your company on this journey and to stay connected with you as Lent unfolds. Intertwining reflection, art, music, and community, the retreat is designed as a space of elegant simplicity that you can enter from wherever you are, at any time that works for you.

I sometimes hear from folks who say, “I’d love to do this but I don’t have time for a retreat!” I completely get that, and so I have especially designed this retreat so that you can engage as much or as little as you wish, in the way that fits best for you. Rather than being one more thing to add to your Lenten schedule, this retreat weaves easily and simply through your days.

For more info and registration, please visit our overview page at Online Lenten Retreat. And please share this link with your friends! (In addition to the individual rate, we have group rates available for folks who want to share the retreat together near or far.) You can even give the Lenten retreat as a gift! If you have questions about the retreat, or concerns about things that you think might hinder you from sharing in the journey, be sure to check out our FAQ page (you’ll find a link on the overview page).

For previous reflections, blessings, and art for Ash Wednesday, please see these posts:

Ash Wednesday: Blessing the Dust
Ash Wednesday: Rend Your Heart
The Memory of Ashes
Upon the Ashes (which features the indomitable Sojourner Truth)
The Artful Ashes
Ash Wednesday, Almost

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Blessing the Dust,” please visit this page at (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

18 Responses to “Ash Wednesday: The Hands that Hold the Ashes”

  1. Cynthia Vrooman Says:

    You are so remarkable. I want to invite you to the wine country in Sonoma California.
    We have a small community but we love your blessings and have purchased a few of your books to make our liturgy stronger and much more beautiful.


  2. Julia Marks Says:

    The artwork is just breathtaking. Thank you.

  3. Linda Graffius Says:

    While my husband was dying of prostate cancer 6years ago, I thought I had to be the rock for my family. I went to koinania and realized the God was my rock. I went home and told all 4 of my children this realization. Being a widow is a complete change in all you do and experience. God bless you.

  4. Maureen Says:

    Tender and beautiful words, Jan. And your painting so moves me.
    May peace be with you.

  5. Christine Says:

    Jan, I will revisit Ash Wednesday differently for having received what you have so thoughtfully shared here. I kept my Jonathan’s ashes with me for weeks (in a simple cardboard box, since it seemed appropriate in that it was the box’s contents that were precious to me). It felt somehow the only meager way to fill that space that was now empty in this world. The eventual release was glorious and weepy and exhausting under a double rainbow. I will recall, this Wednesday, the loving hands that hold Gary’s ashes, and the loving hands that hold us all.

  6. Cathi Everett Says:

    Your words come from your raw heart, and with them is hope and healing…

  7. Carol Green Says:

    The image and the feeling of “the hands that hold” touches my heart and my very achy body. God holds us and heals us in the midsts of our brokenness and pain.

  8. Jacqui Avery Says:

    This is very raw and very beautiful. Thank you.

  9. Luise W Says:

    Dear Jan,
    Thank you for continuing to bless us with your honesty, generosity, grace, love and soulful artistry. You remain in my prayers and heart. I look forward to traveling into lent guided by your sensitive leadership and to being nourished, challenged and sustained by your illuminating artwork, words and imagery. Blessings to you and my gratitude for your faithful, genuine service to us all. I am thankful for your gracious and true way in the world. With love always, Luise

  10. Wronda Says:

    Jan, my mother recently passed and we hold her ashes, trying to decide how and when to let go of them. Your blessing of ashes is deeply touching and the truth of your words is like an arrow to my heart. I continue to hold you in the light and thank God for you.

  11. Joan Says:

    I thought I couldn’t bear to enter into Lent this year. Then your invitation to ashes arrives and with your wrenched heart leading the way into this season, I now know I must.

  12. Robin Says:

    Beautiful, Jan. I’ve passed this on to a dear friend whose husband just died.

    Ash Wednesday has never been the same for me either since I have had my son’s ashes to hold and scatter. Five years later and I am still scattering.

  13. Kimberly Knowle-Zeller Says:

    Thank you, Jan. For the reminder of who holds all of our ashes, and brings beauty from the dust. I wrote of scattering ashes:

  14. Roxanne Says:

    Jan, holding you, praying for courage to continue asking those questions that have no answers…oxo

  15. Wayne Says:

    Thanks Jan for helping me enter into a “Holy Lent”…. Listening to Gary’s music this morning(6am!) and reading your reflective words brings comfort in my continued grief for not only Gary, but those Saints who have touched my life with their eternal wisdom and grace!

  16. Jan Richardson Says:

    Friends, thank you so much for your beautiful words, your prayers, your thoughtfulness. These are such tremendous gifts to me in these days. I send you many blessings as Lent begins!

  17. Kellyann Says:

    Bless you.

  18. Jane Newall Says:

    Jan – my heart goes out to you in the moments of your continued grief. If you have not come across Lily Kershaw’s song Ashes Like Snow yet, perhaps it will resonate with you at this time.

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