top of page

A Meditation on Ash

Most of us know at some point the sense of our life being in ashes. It may be an intensely personal loss that we have suffered or the shared suffering of the pandemic or war. But most of us have tasted ash in our mouths. At such times it can be a comfort to have a ritual that contains us in our suffering and honours the process of dying into new life that Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is all about.

The Ash Wednesday service is a very simple and ancient one. It is both sober and sensual as we smell the smoke, receive the gritty smudge of ash, and hear the ancient words that remind us we are but dust. The readings do not differ from one year to the next. Always this reading from Joel or Isaiah, this reading from Matthew, this psalm. Year after year we are brought back to this place, this moment.

It is worth noting that the ash with which we are marked is made from last year’s palm crosses. And I cannot help but reflect that there are times in life for the individual and the community when the hopes and good intentions, the resolutions and lost causes, the forgotten or abandoned dreams of our past become as ash to us. If you are unable to attend a community event this year for any reason you may want to make your own ritual of burning last year’s palm cross or a list of new year’s resolutions or some item that allows you to let go and be confronted by our mortal condition.

Ash has so many associations and all of them probably belong here. Ash is what is left over, left behind, often an unwanted remainder of what was valuable. Ashes are what remains of a warm night by the fire with someone we love. Ashes are what remain of the one we have loved so desperately when they have been cremated. Ashes are what remain of our home when it has been burnt to the ground by wildfire or the arsonist. And sometimes we fear that ashes will be all that remain of whole villages and nations when war burns across the map. Ashes are all that remain of the pages of our journal where we poured out our heart. And ashes are all that remains of last year’s palm crosses that we held high and had blessed.

Sometimes ashes lie in the sacred bowl that the priest dips their fingers into and remains just a smudge on our foreheads. Other times ashes fill our mouths and threaten to choke us with sadness, fear, regret and shame. Although painful, I am grateful that our tradition has a way of acknowledging and expressing the almost inexpressible sadness and despair that we can experience at times and gives us a ritual way of sharing despair and endings so that we can deeply enter into the journey of Lent confident in the knowledge that this journey ends in life out of death, hope out of fear, and love that overwhelms hate.

The call of the season is in essence simple and yet we tend to find it nigh impossible. We are called to repentance, to turn around toward home, to empty ourselves, to give in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are not requirements in competition with each other – they are all the same call to be deeply available to God and neighbour. To repent of our wrong actions and our wrong attachments. To give out of love to those in need until our barns are emptied of distracting treasure. To pray so much that only the simplest prayer is left in our hearts in an empty room. To empty ourselves of all that distracts us from God and is an obstacle to others knowing God.

And we need to be stripped bare in order to accompany Christ through his passionate journey of life and death to life. We need to practice dying so that we might live more fully. And so we remember that we are but dust and ashes and that to dust we shall return. And we need to be stripped bare of all that accumulated dross in our lives – all that is false and finished, all that has served its purpose or failed – so that we can be open to the still small voice of desire that calls us forth into what is next.

Just as the ash we receive today is made of last year’s palm crosses so too are we offering up all that is of yesterday so that we are empty, ready, desirous of a new tomorrow. For God is not finished with us yet and desires good things for us and of us.

And so this seasonal letting go, giving over, giving away. We let go of our sin – our failures and our shortcomings and our attachments to them. We let go of our anxious and indulgent attachment to so much food so that we are just hungry enough to have our appetites and desires awakened. We pray for others so that we are less consumed by concern for our self. And we do this in the trust that as we become a little empty, a little more conscious of our bodies and selves, that the whisperings of our true desires will begin to be heard over the usual busyness and certainty of our lives. For this great stripping bare is not in order to suffer without purpose but to become lighter for the great journey of our life. Which we are already on and yet somehow always starting out on. So like a rest day when walking the Camino it is day of purposeful rest, of reconsidering, of cleansing and repair, so that we might be ready and open to the next stage of the journey.

We are but dust and ashes and to dust we shall return. Therefore let us pause, let go of our burdens that we have outgrown, so that we are lighter, clearer, ready for all that is calling us forward. Let us attend to the season of Lent and let Lent rework in us all that needs recreating so that we can journey on into the fullness of life.

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ of the journey, come mark us with ash as your own.

It is not too late to join us in this year's Lent journey: "The Path of Descent"


If you enjoy my resources, I would be grateful for you to make a donation for the price of a coffee!

Related posts

bottom of page