Thursday, March 1, 2007
Ashes are not only useful — they teach lessons
The Presbyterians are the guests of our friends at Christ Church for a Lenten Academy on Wednesday evenings this year. We began last week with an Ash Wednesday service, in which the Rev. Bruce McMillan smeared a cross of ashes on the faces of those present — a visible sign of repentance. It was a little humbling to us un-ceremonial Presbyterians, who perhaps like to “think” about repentance, but recoil from actually kneeling and receiving a visual sign.
Most of us today have relatively little experience with ashes. I recall that when Dr. Davies, our pastor and my mentor in Chicago, retired and moved out of the church manse, he and his wife Grace bought an apartment that had a real fireplace.
I was surprised, therefore, when Dr. Davies announced to us that he and Grace had installed a realistic-looking set of gas logs in the fireplace. As a lover of the open hearth, I had to ask if they did not wish to burn wood in their new fireplace.
To which he responded, “If you had to grow up in a home where the fireplace was your only heat, you would not want to bother with one ever again.” Then he told me a story about one Sunday in Wales when he was a young minister. He had arrived early at one of the churches that he served as a part of the circuit to which young ministers in Wales were typically assigned. As was his custom, he built a roaring fire in the pot-bellied stove.
The room became overly warm, and as it happened (because the church was very small and there was a raging storm), only two rotund farmers appeared for the service that day. And as Dr. Davies was holding forth with his sermon from the high pulpit, he realized that both his hearers were sound asleep and snoring.
Not wishing to disturb their Sabbath rest, he stopped his discourse, quietly opened the latch on the pulpit gate, tiptoed down the stairs, closing the church door behind him and went ahead to the next appointment on his circuit.
The two farmers never mentioned the occasion to their minister, and Dr. Davies said with a chuckle that he often wondered what they said to one another when they “came to” some time later that morning.
The dictionary defines ashes as “fine powder left after something has been thoroughly burned.” In liturgical churches, the ashes for this day are made by burning the leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday service. Happiness turned into sorrow is the symbolism — the fickleness of the adoring crowd whose cheers of “Hosanna” quickly turned into cries of “crucify Him!”
Ashes are also mentioned in the Bible in connection with the ancient custom of putting ashes on oneself as a symbol of extreme grief, penitence, and despair. I suppose that when Biblical people heated and cooked with wood, every house had an ash heap, and that this is the place where Job went to mourn before the Lord.
Daniel sat among ashes when he pleaded before God for the forgiveness of his people and the King of Ninevah showed his repentance by similar means after Jonah’s preaching. Even Abraham, when he interceded for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, declares: “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
Ashes were a way of showing how serious one is in the prayer that is uttered. They are a sign of mourning and a symbol of the contrite heart. No doubt this is why they are said to accompany the switches that bad children find in their Christmas stockings; but since Santa Claus is gracious, I have never known a child to receive such a desultory present.
But all lightness aside, ashes are a sign of spiritual seriousness. Yet they are also an agent of cleansing. My father used to tell how his grandmother made laundry soap out of lard, lye, and ashes. I would hate to wash my face with that! But I suppose the ash was to give the soap its abrasive power. And from what I was told, my great-grandmother meant business when it came to her laundry! A big pot was set up in the back yard, with a wood fire underneath. The clothes were scrubbed and boiled, before being hung out to dry. So ashes played their part in cleansing.
Several years ago when the Tupelo Journal phoned to see how our congregation would be celebrating Ash Wednesday, John Armistead, then the religion editor, asked if we would mark worshipers with the sign of the cross in ashes. I told him that we would, except that I just cannot get past a picture in my mind of my Aunt Mayrene.
Mr. Armistead wanted to know what that picture was, so I will tell you also. Aunt Mayrene, Daddy’s older sister, was as devout a Christian as I have known, and was steadfastly opposed to all elaboration and ceremony in the church.
Plain Christianity was what she practiced, and what she thought everyone else should practice too.
Pity the minister who talked too loud, or who waved his arms, or gave any evidence that he was enjoying the material pleasures of life too much. For Aunt Mayrene, this was a sure sign of religious declension.
So I have this picture of Ash Wednesday, in which Aunt Mayrene would say to me, and to us, “But is this necessary?”
The repentance part would be just fine. But she would question the external symbol. (I think my Aunt Mayrene accepted baptism and the Holy Communion only because Jesus had commanded these ceremonies. Otherwise she was almost a Quaker as far as her belief about the inner nature of religion was concerned.)
I am sure my aunt’s feelings were her particular application of our Lord’s words, to “beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Lent is but 40 days (it is the weekdays before Easter; the Sundays don’t count). The season is essentially an invitation. It is a moment to carry out the ashes from your hearth, to sweep your spiritual house clean, and to start afresh with renewed commitment and dedication to the Lord who is gracious and good.
Now, one more story about ashes. When I was just a tot — I could not have been more than three — I was spending the weekend with my grandparents, and a high point was to accompany them to church, so they could show me off.
Forgetting the first law of getting children ready, they dressed me first and then set me to play while they got ready.
It was then that my early fascination with fireplaces manifested itself, and I decided to climb up the chimney to see where Santa Claus came from. My white shirt was ruined.
Immediately I knew I had done wrong and was very sad, but somehow, and I still do not know how the deed was accomplished, my grandmother (who as I have indicated came from a long line of women who were serious about their laundry) washed that shirt white as snow, fluffed it in the dryer, and had me ready to go to Sunday school on time.
The best part, I was glad that my parents were never told, for little children like the security of knowing that grandparents forgive and do not tell, and so are very much like the kindness of the Almighty.
Well, ashes have their uses and teach their lessons. And even in our modern world, we cannot do without them.
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