I recently had an interesting conversation with my stepson. He lives in Massachusetts and uses a wood stove for supplemental winter heating. I’d shared with him a small article with a series of tips for using wood ash (for everything from silver polish to garden fertilizer and slug control) and he called me to discuss the pros and cons of using ash in the garden since it produces lye and salts when it gets wet. Further research revealed that composting the ash was strongly recommended to prevent the harmful burning of plants. The bottom line of our conversation was that more research and some care would be needed to be sure that those ashes were stored and used to the best, and safest, effect.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and I think the same bottom line applies. For many of us, Ash Wednesday is a church-culture phenomenon that marks the beginning of Lent. More research and some care in its use could indeed enrich the soil of our Lenten season.

In ancient cultures, ashes were used to express grief, as well as sorrow for our shortcomings. The prophet Jeremiah’s recipe for repentance involved putting on sackcloth (rough, coarse fabric; you might have seen on television such cloth made into bags for coffee beans) and rolling in ashes. Jesus mentions it as a well-established tradition.

Early generations of Christians continued this Hebrew custom, saying that the confession of sin should include the ritual of lying in sackcloth and ashes. Eventually, rather than rolling in the ashes, Christian priests sprinkled it on the crowns of people’s heads (perhaps making it more symbolic and less truly messy…). Ashes were evidently imposed on the foreheads of women because women worshipped with their heads covered—and this eventually became a common practice for both sexes. Receiving ashes on the first day of Lent had become an established rite in Western Europe by about 1000 CE.

Liturgical ashes for Ash Wednesday are obtained by burning the dried palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday service. I like how this tradition weaves the church years together over time. It is all one trajectory. Celebration becomes lamentation, as we recognize we will return to the dust from which we were formed by our Creator in the very beginning. Ashes initiate us into the season of Lent, when we can compost a year’s worth of “falling short of the glory of God,” enriching our spiritual soil to cultivate new growth so we can be ready to wave palms again on Palm Sunday.

Celebration becomes lamentation because, no matter how hard we try, we cannot remain sin-free. If sin is—as I believe—nothing more nor less than what separates us from God, we will inevitably sin as we live out our lives. Distress, temptation, pain and suffering…all of these and more draw us away from being focused and grounded in God.

The point of the ashes, then, is to remind us that we also are called to complete the cycle. Those celebratory palms are consumed in the fire of our lives, becoming that very earthly ash that enriches our Lenten observance and prepares us to focus on Jesus by Palm Sunday.

Yet we must be careful to keep our Lenten observance in balance. Too many ashes and too many tears can burn us. Fortunately, Sundays are never part of Lent, because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. Sundays give us a break from the observance of Lent, and from our challenging composting efforts.

How are you invited to engage in this cycle of celebration and lamentation this Lenten season?

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