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  • Northminster Church

"The Meaning of the Ashes," by Claire Helton

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Originally offered Feb. 26, 2020


The meaning of the ashes.

As if meaning were a simple one-for-one.

As if we each meant the same thing when we said,

“Ashes to ashes,

dust to dust.”

I am no disgruntled freshman

trying to squeeze out a metaphor;

there is little interest for me

in nailing anything down.

But lifting things up? Yes, let’s do that.

Let’s lift up our fears, hold them to the light.

Raise a torch to illuminate

the dark corners of our psyche,

under our beds,

inside our closets,

where the most frightening monsters hide:

Fear of abandonment, fear of rejection,

fear of just simply being alone;

fear of reprimand, of not being good enough,

fear of getting it wrong, or getting lost, or getting stuck.

All these fears given urgency

by the question that lurks underneath:

What if it’s like this forever?

What if it’s this, and only this, and then I die?

What fear have we known greater than death?

Ashes to ashes,

dust to dust.

We all fall down.

While we’re lifting things up:

Let’s lift up our pain

(I know it’s hard to do)

but let’s lift it up

that we might get a better view

of the brokenness that has shaped us

the suffering that has formed us –

not “because,”

not “for a reason,”

not “as a test,”

just for good.

The pain of the world is in all of us,

not one has escaped – no, not one.

Some hide it better than others,

determined to best it,

determined not to let it determine their lives;

some wear their pain right on their sleeve.

Wherever we find it,

let’s lift it up,

that in raising our hands

we might discover

our neighbors have their own pain, too.

We might discover

we are not as alone as we’d thought.

Ashes to ashes,

dust to dust.

We all fall down.

And if we’re going on lifting things up,

we might need, in this moment,

to lean on one another

for the work before us is grim:

Let us lift up our wrongs.

Let us lift up, together, our own shortcomings,

lift up, united, our faults.

Not merely to say,

“Look, she’s done it too,”

but rather,

“Look, she’s found grace even there.”

For grace is abounding,

that’s why it’s called grace,

sweet, blessed undeserving

not something earned by fasting,

not something earned at all.

Grace is the thing

more eternal than our sins,

more lasting than our pain,

more immortal than these bones.

Ashes to ashes,

dust to dust.

We all fall down.

Grace is the One who meets us on the ground,

who lifts us up,

who marks us with a blessing,

who journeys with us

even here, even now.


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