Mixing Ashes

Cross hand

The following blog post is based on a sermon I delivered to Tri-Saints Lutheran Parish on the occasion of Ash Wednesday 2015.

“Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and

supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”  (Daniel 9:3 NRSV)

At the beginning of this season of Lent, which is, by nature, a confessional season, I have a confession to make.  I don’t like having dirty hands.  I mean this literally, not figuratively.  I am willing to work hard, to pitch in where needed, to “get my hands dirty.”  However, I was not the kind of kid who liked finger painting.  Or the kind of youth who preferred to mix cookie dough by hand when a perfectly good mixer was available.  In fact, I even remember a time when I helped my dad to change a flat tire on our van, and we went immediately afterwards to the service station, not to get the tire fixed, but to ask them if we could use some of their special soap to clean off our hands.

I have gotten better about this over the years.  I have realized that hands do wash, and paint wears off, and it’s not the end of the world if my hands are less than clean; but I still don’t like it.  That’s why one of my liturgically least favorite things to do in the entire church year is to prepare ashes for the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Now, I know that I could order ashes pre-mixed to the exactly correct consistency for optimum use.  They could arrive in a neat little container, and I would hardly have to get my hands dirty at all.  But that’s not how it’s supposed to be done.  And so I do it the “right” way.

Each year, I take the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and burn them.  They are plenty dried out, and I have a special pot just for this purpose.  I find a place shielded from the wind, put the palms in the pot, and set them on fire.  Once the fire subsides, I crush and mash them (a dirty process), removing any unburned stems until they turn to a fine powder. The next day, I mix those ashes in a small glass bowl with some baby oil.  You can do it with a spoon or a fork, but you still have to test them on skin to see if they are mixed properly.  Because ashes are able to take in a lot of baby oil, this process of mixing and testing takes pretty much all day, and by the time that the Ash Wednesday service rolls around, I have ashes embedded under my nails and around them, no matter how many times I wash my hands.  Then, at the service, after marking nearly a hundred people and telling them “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,”  my fingers are so covered in ashes that they stick with my for at least the rest of the week, and sometimes longer.

Given all of this, and my dislike for having dirty hands, you can imagine that I wasn’t looking forward to mixing the ashes for this week’s service.  However, it was as I started mixing them yesterday morning that I had an “Aha!” moment.  Lent is messy.  It is not just a call to the discipline of my head or my heart, but a call to use my hands to get dirty on behalf of God in this world.

In the Ash Wednesday service, we are exhorted to give alms, pray, and fast during the season of Lent.  It occurs to me that all of these things require the work of our hands.  We are asked to take our hands, which use our money for the things we want or need or feel we have earned, and open them to share with those who are truly poor and in need.  We are asked to use our hands, which work hard in our daily lives, or are used for idle purposes in our down time, and clasp them in prayer.  We are asked to use our hands to restrain ourselves through fasting, whether that’s one hand keeping the other out of the cookie jar, or from purchasing that magazine, or turning of the radio dial when we have committed ourselves to silence.

When we think of it this way, Lent cannot possibly be just a head decision or a heart feeling, it requires the work of the hands that God gave us to use them for God’s purpose, on behalf of others, our relationship with God, and ourselves.  So this year, I think I will bless my dirty hands, rather than waiting impatiently for the ashes to wear off.  I will use this reminder as an opportunity to be reminded to give, and pray, and fast.  I am not a tattoo person, but I have decided to wear the cross, not in ashes on my forehead, but on my hand in permanent marker for the duration of the season.  When it washes off, I will have occasion to prayerfully be marked, again and again, until the feast of Easter.

My prayer for you this Lent?  That your hands will get dirty this Lent.  That God will open your hands in giving, and clasp them in prayer, and use them to restrain you when necessary.  May God make us faithful, and he is faithful, to the cross and beyond.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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