We’ve had a rather apocalyptic beginning to 2020, with vast wildfires sweeping through the fertile parts of Australia. Our screens have been filled with images of men and women standing amidst the remains of their homes, images that are becoming all too common across the world (California, Oregon, BC, Alberta, northern Ontario, Greece, Spain, Australia, and on in just the past couple of years) in our era of global warming. As we approach Ash Wednesday this year, it’s hard for me not to think of these images of homes, heirlooms, books, memories — of lives — turned to ashes.
And of course wildfires are only one way (albeit a dramatically symbolic one) that this happens. Floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, war, political strife, poverty, impacts of colonialism, sexism, and racism, domestic violence, death of a loved one, sudden illness — there are so many ways disaster can strike.
What do we say in the face of this?
Christianity is not a faith that claims good things will happen to good people, or that we get our just deserts in this life. It’s far too realistic about both the world and the human condition for that. But what it is is a religion that claims that the end is not the end. There is always the possibility and hope for new life, for new beginnings that can be built from under the rubble of what was.
This is what Ash Wednesday is about. We mark our foreheads with ashes as a symbol of our sins, yes, but just as much as a sign of our commitment to a new beginning. This is what repentance is: seeing our lives in the true and pure light of the Gospel. And this includes hope.
Hearing the amazing stories of human resilience and the power of community in the face of disaster compels me to think that this message of Ash Wednesday is about so much more than our sins. Yes, we need to repent of the ways (through thought, word, and deed) we have turned our lives and relationships to ashes, and turn towards God’s new life. But I am increasingly convinced that we must also ‘repent’ of all of ways our lives have been turned to ashes through no fault of our own. The very symbol itself points to this, since ashes are primarily a symbol of grief and loss, not guilt.
Just as our sins aren’t the end of the story, so too are not other people’s sins against us, or even just the random ways life strikes us down. We make a grave error if we imagine the cross as God’s solution to a math problem. Jesus was indeed “wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities;” but that same oracle from Isaiah also tells us that he “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The cross wasn’t about balancing the books, but about God’s solidarity with the human experience, and opening up a way of new life through it. When our foreheads are marked with ashes, we are marked with our grief and sorrow — for our sins, unquestionably, but for so much more on top of that.
We are all bruised and battered. Our souls are weary and our hearts battle-scarred. But the Gospel insists that this isn’t the end of the story. We are not defined by the worst moments of our lives. There is a promise of new life. I’m reminded of a now-old song by the Christian songwriter Martin Smith, that imagines the soul — weary, despairing, and stripped — coming before Christ:
When all around has fallen your castle has been burned
You used to be a king here, now no one knows your name
You live your life for honor, defender of the faith
But you’ve been crushed to pieces and no one knows your pain
When tomorrow has been stolen and you can’t lift your head
And summer feels like winter, your heart is full of stone
Though all your hopes have fallen, your skin is now your only armour
Wear your scars like medals defender of the faith
Come, come lay your weary head, be still my friend
Come, rise I’ll place my sword upon your shoulder
Come, come lay your faithful head, be still my friend
Come rise with me.
And so, we are dust.
We are sinners. We have been sinned against.
We have hurt others. We too have been scarred by the past and marked with pain.
We are ashes.
But our ashes aren’t the whole story. Because there is beauty from the ashes, there is hope from under the rubble. Because there is the promise of new life, the outstretched hand of Jesus gently, lovingly urging us, “Come, rise with me.”
May all of our Lenten seasons this year be filled with this hope of new beginnings. Amen.