The Rev. John Beddingfield writes in Angelus On Line Newsletter
, of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in New York
Archaeologists tell us that the people of Israel were not alone in using ashes in rituals of purification. Ashes appear in Phoenician burial art and Arabic expressions. Ashes were a sign of grief, mourning, humiliation and penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among the ashes. Cursed and overrun by enemies, the Psalmist "eats ashes like bread, and mingles tears with drink." Ashes are what are left after destruction. After chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain.
Ashes also remind us of a common origin. The second chapter of Genesis tells of how we were created from the dust of the ground. Though we may spend our lives trying to distinguish ourselves from others, running after success and trying to feel different from others, the dust and ashes remind us that we are all made of the same stuff. We are reminded not only of our beginning but also of our end. On the First Day of Lent, ashes are imposed with the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Those words apply to us all.
While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us to repentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life. Isaiah brings glad tidings to the people of Israel, "to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning." Ashes are not the end but are just the beginning. They begin a season that moves us through silence and longing into a season of joy and resurrection....May the ashes we receive be a sign of our humility and our penitence. May they remind us of our individual sins and the complexity of corporate sin. But more than anything, may the ashes invite us into God's presence, into God's love and into God's gift of new life.