In this amazing life we sometimes live unforgetfully, there can be found, close to the surface of our comings and goings, unique and altogether lovely gifts in the form of archetypal moments. These are recurrent symbols, motifs and patterns nestled carefully within soul-enriching experiences that actually mold us and fashion even as we struggle or celebrate through them. These are replete in literature, art, and mythology and a list of the most famous could easily start right here, right now. However, today we make yet another bold claim: in everyone’s life, there is an archetypal Ash Wednesday and a Good Friday, perhaps several days like these, that is to say, there are those days of going without, emptiness, distance, silence and the pain of separation through death or some other terrible loss. They rarely fall on the day assigned for any given year, but make no mistake, they are always there, placed strategically on our life’s calendar and appearing at the least expected moment, often with all rage and fury of a mid-western tornado leaving nothing but emotional darkness and mental debris in its wake. What do you do when you find yourself face-to-face with all the worst possible scenarios that you would have ever imagined appearing all at once and then challenged to the degree you would never have expected, to follow your own advice, your own counsel and to live what you have told so many others to do in the face of remarkable despair and trial?
You keep walking and wondering and asking God how all this happened so quickly. And while you face microcosmic episodes of death, separation and rejection every day, you also find new and amazing opportunities to learn, to cope and to reveal something remarkable about God, the world, love and yourself. And you don’t ever stop because you know if you do, the villains of self-pity and rage will swallow you whole.
These moments will face every human being at one time or another. The goal is to find the greatest amount of emotional and spiritual maturity throughout it all before we get too old not to care enough about anything. This is precisely why the Season of Lent is such a powerful series of days and nights that can and will determine our experience of Easter, the rest of the year but truly, my friends, the rest of our lives—and beyond. Notice the words that accompany the distribution of ashes: “Remember! You are dust and unto dust you shall return.” We might add, for the sake of our present reflection before you today, the following : “Remember! You were made for love and unto love you must return!” Thus we will return to the amazing, remarkable, and incredible plethora of uses for ashes. Let us compare the natural use of ashes in nature and home care with the spiritual value that ashes may have on our spiritual lives if we truly allow them to take root and substance. Prepare for a journey like no other that has the potential of reaping eternal fruit!
In the natural world, a few logs of firewood can produce as much as fifty pounds of ashes—a formidable heap of soot but also a great source for mineral-rich dust that has practical and supernatural purposes. Here are some of the most noteworthy:
- De-skunk pets and neutralize evil. In those areas of the world where humans and skunks must share space, it is helpful to know that just a handful of ashes rubbed on your dog’s or cat’s coat neutralizes the lingering odor of a most unfortunate encounter with Pepé Le Pew. This Lent, let us name at least one very unhealthy and destructive habit or attachment that is nagging our peace of mind and spiritual aroma. Everyone can. As we move forward in this great season, claim victory over that persistent sin remembering that we are made for love and not for selfishness. When we pray, remember to call out the name of Jesus in our lifted words to heaven.
- Block garden pests and tireless temptations. Amazingly, firewood ashes evenly spread in garden beds actually repel slugs, snails and a variety of nasty garden pests. Fasting from sugar or meat or alcohol have the real ability to strengthen our resolve against the temptations that bring us down and cause us to doubt God. Declare Lent as a time for real renewal and never give up the fight to resist what we know is wrong, unhealthy and unholy. Victory belongs to the most persevering.
- Melt ice and cold hearts. In many parts of the world, wood ashes are thrown over walkways and sidewalks to add traction and de-ice the surface without hurting soil or concrete underneath. The human heart cannot survive without a healthy mixture of justice and mercy, integrity and compassion. Just because you look down on someone does not mean that somehow, even magically, they are going to get up and surprise you. Practicing real and daily compassion makes our faith in Jesus very real because that is how He treats each one of us with divine and endless mercy. An attitude of compassion is a little thing that makes a huge difference.
- Control pond algae and unhealthy attitudes. As little as one tablespoon of dried ashes in a medium-sized pond adds enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth allowing for the moral floral and decorative life to flourish. Grudges, unforgiveness, hateful judgmental attitudes can easily creep into the soul especially if we have opened ourselves to the harsh words and actions of others close around us. This Lent, make a serious and honest inventory of what is in your heart as often as you can, remembering that an unreflective life is not worth living. If you find something unhealthy, expose it to Jesus the Light of the World in your prayers and thoughts and make slow but serious changes to move forward. More prayer, more power.
- Enliven tomatoes and spiritual fruit. For the benefit of most calcium-loving plants, experienced gardeners place about a quarter cup of ashes right in the hole before placing saplings or seeds in the ground. This can actually increase the size and tastiness of the fruit by twenty percent according to some estimates. In the forty days of Lenten Journey, make every effort to spend just a little more time with God every day, which has the potential of making all the difference in the world. You make time for everyone and everything that is important to you in this life. Make time for God and keep your special appointment with the one who has never forgotten you. Like a rudder on a ship, this small, seemingly insignificant detail can position the difference between merely surviving to thriving.
- Shine silver and the soul. A paste of ash and water makes a surprisingly nontoxic metal polisher that makes the best pieces of the cabinet glimmer and shine. A real and honest intention to keep our Lenten promises with the hope of becoming more and more like Christ will allow us to shine before even the more skeptical in our world. Every night before going to bed during these forty days of transformation, reflect on what you have done with what was presented to you. Celebrate when it was great and re-commit for another day should it be His most holy will for you.
In everyone’s life there are days that feel just like Christmas and as gloriously, personally triumphant as Easter and just like the other two famous archetypal dates, these bright moments actually come much more often, although, while we are in the midst of fasting and grieving, it does not always feel that way. The truth for all of us today, however, is simple. It is precisely how we handle going without, self-denial, painful self-awareness and courageous wishes to change internally that determines how we experience and employ feasting, friendship and life to its very fullest, the way God intended for us to live it.
I can’t believe that I would want it any other way.