When I was a little kid, I thought Ash Wednesday was synonymous with bushfires. There was a kind of hushed tone reserved for the name; a natural disaster that seemed to me to have scared the pants off fire-fighters, homeowners and volunteers alike in the town I grew up in. I was too young, but I knew that there were horrible stories behind the experiences of those like my dad, who went to help, and there was always an edge to the way mum described the early end to my sister’s school camp.
So I remember it was a big surprise when I learned that Ash Wednesday was first of all a date in the Christian calendar and not, in fact, a day that began in 1983. A surprise, followed by a slightly sickening revelation about the irony of the name. About a thousand years before these bushfires Christians were already starting the season of Lent with ashes.
Then, as now, to begin this forty day season of preparation for Easter, ashes are made by burning the palm fronds left over from the Palm Sunday celebrations of the year before. On the last Sunday of Lent, on which Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion is remembered, foreheads are marked with a cross. Wearing ash became a symbol of repentance and of public sorrow.
The idea of Ash Wednesday meaning bushfires gave me a picture of ashes that were heavy and ubiquitous; the fallout of heartbreak. But while the liturgical stocks of ash may seem more contained, I now see we should be wary of keeping such things neat. Ash Wednesday, as the first day of Lent, ensures that the road to Easter starts with the hard, gritty edge of faith, and of life. It is the church’s reminder that Easter renewal is sought from within the mess of everyday life. Whether we mark our foreheads, or just give our fears, disappointments and sufferings a good long stare, we start by acknowledging not just our own failings, but the brokenness of the world – the symbols of celebration are reduced to ashes.
And I’m tipping we’ll all remember the feeling of ashes this bushfire season. It is not hard to picture the sky as though airbrushed grey, clogged by a haze the sun fought against, while our eyes stung and our car ducos turned gritty. And that’s just in metropolitan Melbourne. We who were there can recall the surreal images of flames and bursts of orange, and the people who appeared haggard and worried on our TV sets each night – their lives redirected into the daily business of readying themselves and their properties, should wind and heat conspire to bring fire their way.
Perhaps though, after lifetimes of bushfire news, such situations, and the recovery required are overly familiar to us. We in Australia are well versed in the stories of our extraordinary flora, which thrive when struck by fire. We will be unsurprised to learn that it takes a mere few days for a eucalypt to send out its supple green shoots.
In less time than it takes the church to make its annual pilgrimage from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, the Australian landscape will have moved from fire and ash to extravagant blooms. But despite the bush’s resilience, it is too tempting to make something reduced to ashes an easy symbol – whether eucalypt or palm frond.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy acknowledges that people and lives are more complicated than bush, and our renewal mightn’t follow a calendar so neatly. And yet, every year, the church takes the palms, and burns them. And the people file forward, and own up to what seems inadequate or painful, face to face on foreheads, because at the same time the ritual offers a reminder that this ash is not the final word. If what we have endured is neither neat, nor in line with the calendar, then perhaps the beauty of the church’s proclamation becomes even clearer.
Lent happens every year, and it is always followed by the celebration of renewal at Easter. In any given year, when for whatever reasons people find themselves unable to believe it, they are still invited forward, to wear the ash, name the brokenness, and be carried by the millennia of the faith of others, until they find that the renewal has become their own.