Ash Wednesday ~ Ashes to Ashes - Genesis 18:27-33
Do you have a real fireplace in your home? Many homes still do have a functioning grate and chimney and an open fire in the living room has become a nostalgic, symbolic reference to an age from which we have thankfully moved on. And even if we may not have or want one, they are still to be found in pubs, restaurants and other public places, valued and maintained for the warmth they provide and the focus of companionship they offer.
Fire produces heat and light. The flickering flames dance with orange-hued shapes tinged with blue. In the glow one can see and invent images and be mesmerized. You can even download video of a flickering fireplace for the latest widescreen TVs, which in some places are installed precisely where the fireplace used to be. Something primeval is aroused in us as we sit in front of a fire, whether it is electronically created or a fire pit on a summer's evening in the garden.
Fire is neither good, nor bad. Shere Khan, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book calls it the ‘red flower’ because animals are invariably frightened by it, while only humanity has harnessed its power for both good, and evil. Centuries ago the pillaging of a village led to it being torched and reduced to smouldering ash. Forest fires leave nothing behind. Wartime bombs and terrorist explosions fling fire in our faces. Yet, Louis Fieser, the man who invented napalm also did pioneering, lifesaving work on blood clotting agents.
This paradox is the paradox of fire itself, because the red flower is a beautiful, life-giving agent of rebirth as well as a dangerous flame.
The Ancient Greeks told a story of the phoenix, the mythical bird who self-immolated, only to rise from the ashes, combining fear and the hope in this enduring idea. Perhaps you know that high up on the southern facade of St Paul’s Cathedral is the statue of a phoenix rising from the ashes, a symbol of resurrection. Christopher Wren had it put there after it was recovered from the ashes of the cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Underneath it the word ‘resurgam’ (‘I rise’), makes Wren’s rebuilding of St Paul’s a Christian symbol of resurrection, which both draws on the ancient imagery and makes the very building an emblem of hope and new birth for the City of London, so comprehensively destroyed by the cleansing power of fire. For it should also be remembered that to a great extent, the fire of 1666 purged the City of London of the pestilence with which it had been plagued in the preceding years.
Fire burns, producing smoke and ash. It consumes everything, turning it into grey powder. For most of us, fire and ash is our body’s destiny. On Ash Wednesday - today, we ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ as ashes are imposed on the forehead in the sign of the cross with the words ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. Palm crosses from last year have been burnt in preparation, consumed by fire, and reduced to grey ash for this purpose, also reminding us of the liturgical cycle of life, death and resurrection. So whether in the rubble of St Paul’s; the ashes of a palm leaf; the ashes in the grate at home, or our own mortal remains after the crematorium has done its job, the end product is basically the same: carbon reduced to ash.
We are all but dust and ashes, inasmuch as at the end of our lives we become that. Just as what we have been is a vital part of what we are, so what we will become is also part of what we are. So our own mortality and our need for mercy are connected. This is a juxtaposition which we still find in the penitential spirituality of Ash Wednesday and the days that follow. The words used when we are ashed invite us to combine our remembrance of our mortality (‘remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return’) with the recognition of our sinful nature and need for mercy (‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’).
Fire is a leveler, reducing everything to the same thing. Rich, poor, large, small, animal, mineral or vegetable: fire returns them to a common substance which came into being in the first moments of creation. So as well as being wisely frightened by fire, we are truly humbled by it. Ashes also symbolize humility, penitence and mourning. Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1) and Jeremiah tells the people to do likewise (Jeremiah 6:26). Daniel and Jonah both don sackcloth and ashes as an outward sign of spiritual submission and humility (Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6). The modern signing with ash is a poor but powerful reminder of an ancient association. To be ashed, is to be daubed with death and smothered in sin. Lent is about remembering this in preparation for Easter. And Easter, when it comes, reminds us that we need neither dwell in sin, nor fear death, for in Christ, tempted yet undefiled, we have our freedom from sin and our hope of heaven.
So… Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from son, and be faithful to Christ.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 1/3/17