It's probably just as well I got "ashed" twice today -- at chapel on campus this morning and at church this evening. I don't know if the psalmist of Psalm 51 had any concept of being "depleted" among all the talk about a "broken" and "contrite" spirit, but I'm going to go with it as fitting.
But my mind wandered, as it often does. Ashes are an interesting symbol to have smeared cross-like upon one's forehead. The saying about "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is typically invoked to point to the ashes as a reminder of our finiteness and mortality, and theologically that's all fine and good.
I can't help but think of ashes in other contexts, though, contexts that have more to do with our need to repent.
Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013
Ashes, of course, come from fire. Something is consumed, and ashes are what remain. In many traditions historically, and even today, ashes are the final condition of the human body. Hence the reminder of our mortality.
Other things, of course, are burned to leave ashes. For the Ash Wednesday observance, tradition dictates that the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday observance provide the ashes for this year's Ash Wednesday.
Ashes are also sometimes the product of burning for other purposes -- a log in a fireplace, for example, to warm all those around.
Or sometimes ashes are the result of human folly. Because of our all-consuming need to consume, we go to greater and more destructive extremes to find fuel for our consumption. We fail, though, to see how destructive that fuel can be, and assume we need no greater caution with stuff that turns out to be even more flammable. And so, a train derails and explodes (so powerfully that it was visible from space), and destroys most of a town in Quebec.
Then it happened in Alabama.
Near Aliceville, Alabama, November 2013
And North Dakota.
Casselton, North Dakota, December 2013
And in New Brunswick (that's in Canada, for those geographically deprived about Canada.)
Near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, January 2014
For a change, here's one that didn't explode or burn. That's the good news. The bad news is this was smack in the middle of Philadelphia. Too close for comfort to millions of people. Potentially an awful lot of ashes.
Over the Schuylkill River, January 2014
It doesn't have to come from an oil train, or even a pipeline (they've been blowing up too). Maybe it's acres upon acres of Amazon rainforest, burned off to clear land for cattle grazing. Maybe its a Salem witch trial. Maybe it's acres of wildfires destroying homes that had no business being built in a wildfire zone. Maybe it's Auschwitz.
So much destruction, intended or carelessly encouraged. Ashes. Signs of our fallibility.
Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Maybe ashes should also remind us of our own need to repent. Not merely confess, but repent. Change. Stop doing what we're doing.
Our fires don't seem to purify, do they? All too often they do seem to hasten our mortality, instead of merely reminding us of it.