(re)Imagining Ashes

Ashes and Flower

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practices righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” . . . Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your break with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

—Isaiah 58:1-12, selected verses

Like a polyrhythmic song, our lives often move to multiple rhythms simultaneously.  Sometimes, those distinct rhythms are obvious.  At other times, the distinction is subtle, if not virtually imperceptible or entirely absent.  Calendars frequently drive those rhythms.

As we live our lives, we follow several, divergent calendars each day.  We might follow a secular calendar, telling us the months, days, and years.  We might follow a lunar calendar, telling us when to till and plant and pick.  We might follow an academic calendar, telling us when to matriculate and graduate.  We might follow a liturgical or sacred calendar, telling us when to pray or worship or prepare or celebrate.  Each of these calendars may be laid overtop one another, creating the sometimes disruptive yet sometimes masterful songs that are our lives.

The Christian tradition, as it is with many religious traditions, follows a distinct calendar unique to the rhythms of the faith.  That Christian calendar turns another page this week as we move from our post-Epiphany wanderings to the intentional journey of Lent that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.  That page’s turning is marked with the ashes of a Wednesday service of humble reflection.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day journey, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his own ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ.

Parker Palmer intuitively senses the import of the sacred found in such breaking.  In his Let Your Life Speak, Palmer reflects, “I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility.  It is a blessed etymology.”  Like a winter wood, fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new.  Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt; they breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence. Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down during Lent so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives.

In the passage from the prophet Isaiah above, we hear Israel’s complaint against God that God has neglected them.  Yet, in reply, God responds that Israel has gone through the motions of fidelity and righteousness, attending to ritual worship and fasting but ignoring the purpose of such worship and fasting.  That purpose is the redirecting of their lives away from themselves and toward their God and their neighbors, hence the validity of prophet’s complaint that their fasting has not led to feeding the hungry.  This re-centering is a humbling act, breaking down our self-perceptions, self-aggrandizement, and rigid presumptions.  The ashes of this Wednesday are a reminder of this need (and ability) to be broken down in order to be remade into something else.  And, as any gardener will affirm, the value of ashes to a fertile humus cannot be overstated.

Like Israel, we are all in need of such purposeful humbling—including me.  That is the gift of the liturgical calendar. Despite my inevitable resistance to such painful and breaking introspection, the calendar rolls around to Ash Wednesday inexorably, demanding my attention and reflection.  The good news of ashes is that in the introspective burning there comes new life.  What better news is there than the rhythmic arrival of new life?

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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