Ashes

The Beauty of ‘Nothing’ (as we observe Ash Wednesday)

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This past Sunday, using the metaphor of the twin towers of a suspension bridge, I invited our local congregation to explore a pairing of two Sundays in the calendar, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday. These are the interrelated Sundays immediately before and after Lent. Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent present us with a similar opportunity. Here, we can explore the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. With this second comparison between liturgical days, instead of noticing a parallel, we can observe an evident paradox.

On Easter Sunday, we face an unusual challenge. We must take the finding of an absence, and discern within it a presence. Something that was known, seen and touched, became as if it was nothing. And so, we are challenged to see how an empty tomb could at the same time be full of meaning. Even though Mary Magdalene and the disciples found nothing in the tomb, they came away with the conviction that something profound was there.

Consider, then, this remarkable contrast. In the metaphors at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we observe inverse phenomena. What would Ash Wednesday be without ashes? Ashes constitute a biblical image with a long and vivid history. And our tactile liturgical use of this common material plays a central role in our services on the first day of Lent. Yet, this liturgical presence of ashes is meant to represent an absence. A dish full of ashes in my hand represents something larger, which is empty. Something (the sign of the cross) is marked with ash on parishioners’ foreheads, and it symbolizes the starkness of nothing, or, literally, no thing.

So, the Sunday of joyful resurrection presence provides the reverse of the Wednesday of regrettable absence. Though it wouldn’t sound as good, Ash Wednesday could instead be called, “Absence Wednesday,” “Empty Wednesday,” or “Nothing Wednesday.” This is because the ashes at the heart of the liturgy for this day symbolize an absence, an emptiness, or a ‘nothing.’ I don’t mean that the ashes are empty of meaning. It’s just that what they represent is literally nothing. Ashes represent nothing of value, nothing of worth. And that is what makes them special! We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us that, on our own and relying on ourselves, we are nothing of value, nothing of worth. No matter how hard we try, we don’t give meaning and value to ourselves. Only God does that.

Our lives can sometimes feel like they are full of “nothings,” as if all that we do only amounts to ashes or dust. All too quickly, we forget that dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s creation of human beings. They are the building blocks of God’s Kingdom. When we think about something we have done, and are tempted to say, “O, it’s really nothing at all,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing’.

 

This posting is a slightly altered republication of a post from March 2017. It is based on a homily for Ash Wednesday that I have frequently offered, the most recent text of which can be found by clicking here.