Joel 2:12-18; 2Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
Australia has been shocked by the ferocity and destructiveness of the recent bushfires. My whole parish in Morwell was covered with black ash. It covered outdoor furniture, cars, footpaths, everything; it even found its way indoors, through open windows and air vents – ash everywhere.
For those directly involved in and affected by the fires ash is a symbol of all the desolation and death they caused. Ash is what’s left when the fire has done its work; it is dry, choking, bitter tasting and ugly.
Those of us who have visited bushfire scenes know that television bulletins cannot do justice to the reality. The swirls of powdery ash around our feet, the still smouldering trees, the smell of ash in our noses, the dry crunch of every footstep, and above all, the silence, the emptiness, the ‘nothingness’ of the bush, everything black (or white where the fires burned hottest), everything gone.
In stark contrast to all this is the often repeated intention from fire victims who lost everything, ‘We still have each other, we can rebuild.’ Of course, the rebuilding will be different. Trees will not be planted so close to houses this time, firebreaks will be created, perhaps bunkers will even be constructed. Hopefully, there will be a new way of going about the business of living in the bush.
This morning I am going to take some ash and place it on your forehead. This ash is the same symbol of desolation and death produced by the latest fires but with a few differences.
Firstly, this ash will be placed on your forehead at your request. No one will force you to come up to receive it; it will be purely voluntary. You will be saying ‘Give me this ash as a symbol of the destruction I wish to have happen within me this Lent; the destruction of my evil passions, the clearing of all the undergrowth in my life that is hindering my journey towards God, the destruction of all my empty attachments. I want it all cleared so that I may be free to travel more safely and more quickly.’
Secondly, the ash will be placed on your forehead in the shape of the Cross; not ‘a cross’ as some people say, but ‘the Cross’ – the Cross of Christ. This means that the ash is for us a symbol both of annihilation and of hope. As the Cross is the Christian symbol of salvation and hope of eternal life, so the cross of ashes on our forehead is for us an invitation to freedom from sin and new life.
Thirdly, the ashes will be blessed and mixed with holy water. We all know the explosion of green that follows rain on a burnt-out forest; the leaves burst from the very trunks of the blackened trees. Ash and water is a potent mixture for new life and today, at the beginning of our Lenten journey of prayer, penance and almsgiving, we ask God to plant the seed of his grace into our efforts, to make them fruitful.