The adult person in the street, when confronted with questions about Ash Wednesday, may well remember 16 February 1983 and the horrendous fires. Ash Wednesday for practicing Christians has another dimension but, even then, the fires have something to teach us, as our Indigenous brothers and sisters will tell us. My teenage years spent working in and studying horticulture have taught me the value of ashes. There are many trees and other plants in this country which require fire or smoke for their seeds to germinate. Ash is a sign of destruction – yes – but it also contains the seeds of new life. Ash Wednesday isn’t the start of a period of self-denial for its own sake – which makes us appreciate chocolate, alcohol, coffee even more – or to strengthen our will power. It’s more about clearing away some of the things we rely on to make us feel good, including other people’s admiration. It reminds us that we rely on Jesus. Ash Wednesday and Lent are about burning away some of the rubbish in our lives, so that the light gets in and there is room for new growth. And that should make us joyful. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring (Northern Hemisphere) when new life bursts through death. There is a wonderful prayer request that God ‘forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be’. Lent is not just about hanging our heads in shame as we acknowledge our past failures – it is a time of trying to grow as Christians. When we receive ashes on our heads, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us that we are nothing without God.
Ash can be a sign of destruction and sin – but it can also be the beginning of hope. The final lines of a poem by Francis Lightbourne:
Remember then, O Ichabod, /That dust thou art, gold dust for God