Ash Wednesday – A Beautiful Day

Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Ash Wednesday
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, Our Strength and Our Redeemer.
For me, today, Ash Wednesday is one of the most beautiful days of the year.
Of course, it helps that the sun was out, the sky was blue and the snow has not all turned muddy grey yet.

I was in the office in the parish house this afternoon listening to the delighted shrieks of the youngsters at the after-school program playing on the heap of snow at the end of the parking area.  It is so simple, it is a heap of snow, unwanted by most of us because it was cleared from the parking area, we don’t want it and yet it supplied so much enjoyment.  So simple, a pile of frozen water crystals, and yet it encouraged so much creative play.

But whether the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the snow is white or the children are playing; it is still a beautiful day.

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

True, our culture tends to see the day in a negative light.  For some it marks the start of forty days of penance, forty days of deprivation, forty days of somber music, forty days of no candies or no coffee or whatever it is that is given up for Lent.  Ash Wednesday is the day that marks the beginning of forty days of some sort of misery.  Many people who have never set foot inside a church and have no idea who Jesus is beyond the baby that was born on Christmas Day will describe Lent as forty days of giving up something that is well liked.

It is a vivid picture but hardly one that can be described as beautiful.

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

If I say the word “ashes” the likely image will be the residue from a fire; there are some good fires like the fires that keep us warm on a cold day or the camp fires that bring back happy memories of the lazy, hazy days of summer and sitting around the camp fire telling stories and roasting marshmallows or hot dogs.

Often ashes will remind us of the horrible fires; of homes, buildings, cities, lives ruined and literally reduced to ashes.  It is a very real memory for anyone who lived through the bombings during the Second World War, or for anyone who has lost a home to fire.  A memory that may fade somewhat but cannot be erased.  I still remember the early hours of the November morning in Montreal as I stood in the cold, without my coat or my wallet, watching the building that housed my first apartment engulfed in flames.

But fire does not mean the end; there are many forests that cannot be regenerated except through fire, some seeds will not germinate until they have been scorched by fire.  An area that has been scorched by fire, regardless of its source will quickly spring to new life.  Not necessarily the same plants as before but new life none the less; new plants taking advantage of all the sunlight.

Ashes are dark, they are messy, they may signal the end of something – a tree, a building or a life.  But they are not barren; new life springs from the wilderness.

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

Ask many children and a lot of adults and an ‘X” can be bad; it is the mark in school that an answer is wrong.  It can be associated with failure or rejection.

But we have all been marked with a cross; we were first marked with a cross with water and sometimes with oil at our baptism.  To be marked with cross identifies us as the loved children of God.

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

Today we are marked with the cross using ashes and the words, “remember you are dust.”  The ashes and words remind us that we are not so wonderful. In fact, we are all sinners.  The ashen sign reminds us of what we are fashioned from, and to what we will return.  It initiates and impels us into the wilderness where we remember what is most essential to us.

Asked to name my sins right now; I would probably list some that are not too outrageous, remember a few that I would really prefer to forget and then draw a blank and stammer grabbing at whatever thoughts jumped into my head first.  I would imagine that the list I came up with would be rather shorter than the truth.  And you know what?

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

It is a beautiful day because despite my list of sins I know that God loves me and forgives me.

It is a beautiful day because despite our list of sins we know that God loves us and forgives us, each single one of us.

Remember the first verse of the psalm that we read; it says:  “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps 103:8)

It is a beautiful day because I am marked with a cross, a cross that will not be wiped away.

I will wear that ashy, messy cross on my forehead admitting that I am a messed up sinner and to remind myself that God loves and works with me to do better no matter how much I mess up.  Will you wear the cross too?

It is a beautiful day because it is Ash Wednesday.

Amen.

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