By Robert B Kelly
Hope rises from the ashes
AtnSH WEDNESDAY takes its name from he simplest but ost evocative of symbols exploited in liturgy: ashes. Like all good symbols, like all good jokes, ashes don't need explanation. I shall try, then, to resist the temptation to explain, and simply share the thoughts that these ashes provoked for me this year.
Ashes on their own would suffice, if only we would let them speak. They are a reminder of primitive times and of our primitive nature a literally down-to-earth reminder in an era of ultrasophistication, when our very humanity is in danger of being swamped by what is called "technical progress".
Technical it certainly is, but can it be called progress?
Don't misunderstand me, I'm no Luddite. These words .-typed on a computer in France and transmitted by email appear in your newspaper with very little "human" intervention. But all of these things computers, modems, internet are but tools.
What I have to say would not change even if I'd written it by hand, having cut my quill, mixed my ink and found something to write on.
Just as quills and parchment are consigned to the dustbin of history, so too today's technology will soon be yesterday's curiosity, consigned to the scrapheap. Whatever the medium, it will finish as dust. What counts is the message.
In case we missed the message, the marking of our foreheads with ash was accompanied by this reminder: "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return."
This year I had no need of such a forced reminder of mortality.
Part of my work is with the religious education and pastoral department of a secondary school in France. This school recently lost 10 third-year pupils and a teacher in an avalanche.
To correspond to what I really feel, the next paragraph should be blank. No words are adequate. And yet what will remain with me is not so much the shock of the disaster, but the way in which we managed to respond to it. Yes, there were tears, audible cries of revolt even, but there was also a great wave of solidarity, greater I dare say than the wave of snow which swept the youngsters to injury and death. Great as the catastrophe was, the response was greater still.
Ours is still a young school which hasn't had time to establish a very visible tradition. But through those difficult days we discovered that, young though we are, our school has its feet firmly fixed on the solid ground of Christian hope.
Where does that hope spring from? Deep down it comes from a refusal to see ourselves simply as dust. The creation narrative in Genesis 2, where the name "mankind" is derived from the word for "the dust of the earth", is an ancient testimony to such a refusal. "Yahweh God fashioned humanity (Adam) from the dust of the soil (adamah), breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and so gave life to humanity."
In John's Gospel, Jesus is presented using the gesture of mixing dust with earth to make the clay he smears on the eyes of the blind man.
But if dust we are, we have dared to proclaim that we are "magic" dust, inspired by God and illuminated by Christ. We are the dust of which dreams are built, despite the all-too-real nightmares that everyday life may throw before us.
As people in the desert dustbowls long for oasis, so in the face of death we dare cry life, in the face of apparent defeat, we dare claim victory!
In the midst of the dust of the stable, in the midst of the dusty climb into Jerusalem, we dare to recognise God and cry "hosanna". No accident that the palms of "hosanna" Sunday are burned to provide the next year's Lenten ashes.
The dust on our brows is a symbol of our humanity, and a badge of our dignity.
Hence the paradox which lurks at the heart of "hosanna", a cry we take instinctively to be one of joy, but which literally means "may God have mercy on us". We sing at the tops of our voices, for although we are dust, we are dust which has been touched by God, graced by the incarnation, raised by Christ's being laid low in the dust.
This is the central theme of Christianity's oldest hymn, quoted by Paul in Philippians 2 verses 6 to 11. It's a hymn we make our own as the gospel acclamation on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
The dust we bear on our brows is a symbol of our pathetic, weak humanity and a badge of our dignity and potential. Children of the earth, called to be children of God. It is only by returning to what we truly aredust that we can become what we are destined to be.
When you lose 10 children and a teacher in one afternoon, swept to oblivion in the dense dust of an avalanche, your perspective on things is radically upset even if only for a relatively short time.
TuAT,s THE real point of letting
ourselves be marked with ashes. As baptised Christians, ours is a "different" perspective. What is rubbish in the eyes of the world may be most valuable in the perspective of the Kingdom.
Terrible though the tomb may seem, especially when it is 13and 14-year-olds that we have to commit to it, the grave is the place where dust does not have the last word. Though we seem to crumble to dust, the breath of God that gave as life will never gasp its last. God gives his spirit never gives it up.
The real reason we take part in last Wednesday's liturgy is to admit that despite our Baptism, despite our Confirmation anointing, instead of being the light of the world, we have let ourselves be blinded by the dust of the world. To let the same brows once touched by water and chrism be visibly stained vith ashes is a first step towards Holy Saturday.
For the blind man, the dust on its own was not enough. It was followed by Jesus's instruction: "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam." (For those of us with limited Hebrew, Siloam translates as "sent".) If we are deaf to Christ's call, if we do not intend to wash Wednesday's ashes from our brows with the new baptismal waters of the Easter Vigil, then we're wasting our time with the dust and stuff.