Sunday, February 21, 1999
When I was growing up, on cold winter nights we would often have a wood fire going in the living room. And inevitably, at least once or twice a month, my dad would need to empty the fireplace of its quickly-filling ashes. I don't remember exactly when, perhaps he had always done this for he is one of those wise but quiet people who just knows all the neat little tricks that you can never find in print but he would take the ashes and spread them either around the pecan tree in the front yard or put them in the garden. Huh? What good are ashes in the garden or around trees? After all, aren't ashes just the left over nothingness of a fire that made a cold night a little less wintry? Aren't ashes just the burnt up wood, the signature of things that were but no longer? Well, believe it or not, wood ash is very high in potassium, a necessary nutrient of plants and animals. In addition, wood ash changes the acidity of soil to make it more alkaline. In short, there is something hidden in the ashes. Okay, that's all very interesting, but what does this have to do with the church?
Just this: In the Lutheran tradition (as well as many others) Feb. 17 was Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the season of Lent. On this evening, we at Prince of Peace had a service, which included a time to come forward to the alter rail. The rail where we baptize. The rail where we are fed by the Lord's Supper. The rail where we commend those who have passed on. Somewhere in each of these services the presiding pastor makes the pastor makes the sign of the Cross. And so too, on Ash Wednesday, we received a cross, this time on our foreheads (remember baptism... "child of God, you have been marked with the Holy Spirit and sealed with the Cross of Christ forever"). This cross was made with ashes, a visible sign of that Cross of Christ we received a baptism. At the same time, we heard the words "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," an echo of words found in Genesis, where God speaks to Adam: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19). And again in Genesis 18:27, Abraham answers God, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes."
Like the wood ashes, there is something hidden here. There is spiritual nutrition in the ashes on our head, and in the ashes of our lives. There is something redeeming (literally) in remembering that we are only dust and ashes, for the sign that is made on our forehead is not accidental or random. In remembering who we aren't we're not God, nor in control of our lives we remember whose we are. We are children of God and this Cross on our forehead reminds us of the price Christ paid for our adoption into God's family. It took death. Christ's death. On the Cross. For you and me.
"...We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ if, in fact, we suffer with Him so that we may be glorified with Him" (Romans 8:16-17). "God destined us for adoption as His children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us" (Ephesians 1:5-8a).
As this Lenten season begins, keep in mind the price, the sacrifice, and the love God still has for each of us. Yes, when God has determined our time to leave this world, others will witness that words and a cross were again said and displayed. But listen to the Promise, the Promise we were baptized with, the Promise we are fed with by the alter, the Promise we are marked with on Ash Wednesday, the Promise that is preached every Sunday: "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection and to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God ( name of departed), and we commit their body to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless them and keep them. The Lord make his face shine upon them and be gracious to them. The Lord look upon them with favor, and give them peace."
A Peace that passes all understanding.
By the way, the ashes we used came from the burning of pal branches. It seems a prophet was going into Jerusalem and the townspeople put down palm branches to praise Him. They were shouting something about Hosanna. He died the next week. But that was not the end of His story. Or ours.
( The Rev. Keith Hedrick is the associate pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. You are cordially invited to Prince of Peace to explore the season of Lent on Wednesdays from now until the week prior to Easter. We are located on Ga. Highway 314, one-quarter mile south of the Pavilion. There is a soup or chili supper ($2) from 5:30-7 p.m. and two Lenten services at 6 p.m. (appropriate for families with small children) and a more formal service at 7:15 p.m.)