Ashes into Beauty

by Christine Sine  

Every year, as Lent approaches I like to choose a focus for my reflections and actions during the season. A few years ago, when Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day and Easter Sunday was on April Fool’s Day, I chose the theme For Love of the World God Did Foolish Things It not only provided a focus for my own reflections but also for Lenten posts on the community blog I facilitate. There were lots of fun posts to read over the season and lots of ideas of things we could do to really be the foolish outside the box people God wants us to be. 

I always love it when I find a theme that is in keeping with the mood of the season in which we live and this year I feel I have once again hit the jackpot with the theme Finding Beauty in the Ashes of Lent.Many of us are still living in the lament and grief that the COVID lockdown inflicted on us. Some of us are lamenting lost loved ones and the separation from family. Others are reeling under the shock and heartache of the revelations of the depth of economic inequality and the discrimination against black people. Still others struggle with how to reconnect to their churches now that live services have revived  We are indeed living in the midst of lament – a perpetual Ash Wednesday experience from which there seems to be no escape. We need help to uncover the beauty and the joy of what Lent is preparing us for – the wonderful celebration of resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Lent has become a popular practice for people of all Christian traditions in the last twenty years but often it is trivialized to the giving up of chocolate or TV. To me, Lent is not about giving up, it is about preparation for the beauty of life in God’s kingdom. It is a good time to prepare our hearts, not for Good Friday but for the celebration of Easter Sunday, and that celebrative attitude of new life in Christ that should fill our hearts and our lives at all times. 

It’s not easy to introduce ourselves or our congregations to such a journey however and I hope you don’t mind me suggesting a few out of the box ideas, grounded in our old traditions but with new twists that say things will not return to the old normal and we need to uncover the beauty hidden amongst the ashes. These ideas will be fleshed out more fully in a Lenten retreat Finding Beauty In the Ashes of Lent, I am facilitating February 26th. You can find more information about that here – 

Ash Wednesday ashes were traditionally made by burning the Palm Sunday palms from the year before, and I loved to collect a few palms, allow them to dry out over the year and then burn them for my own personal Ash Wednesday observance. Last year however, I didn’t have any palms so I burned one of my out of date masks instead. It wasn’t done as a protest against mask mandates or because I didn’t intend to wear masks again, even though at that point we thought that mask wearing would soon be over. It was done in gratitude for the protection that these masks gave me from the virus. 

This year as we enter the third year of mask wearing I am burning one of my masks again. I am so grateful for the protection these masks give me, and though their impact palls into insignificance compared to that of the importance of the crosses of Palm Sunday, they are a symbol that all of us are familiar with these days. They are a symbol we can all identify with, and and they are a symbol that has given us hope. 

I am not just burning my mask however. I am using that as a symbol of transformation, a way to remind myself and those around me that the journey of Lent is preparing us for the beauty of Easter Sunday. So how will I accomplish this? This year, by creating artwork from the ashes. I found this simple recipe for paint made from ashes and plan to use it as my painting medium. Now let me assure you I am not an artist, but as John O’Donohue reminds us in his book Beauty “If our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected place where the ungraceful eye would never linger.” (P19) So what I hope my journey through Lent will teach me is to look at my artwork with graceful eye that sees beauty not just in my artwork but hidden secretly in everything I see around me. 

Another possible activity that I adapted from my good friend Lilly Lewin, is to look back at the photos of the last couple of years then build your fire and burn your mask or small pieces of paper on which you have written what you are grieving.  Read Isaiah 61, preferably in The Message translation which tells us that God promises “to care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion, and give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes” Now go out and buy yourself a rose or two, or even a whole bouquet! Let these roses be a reminder throughout Lent of the great love and hope of Jesus! Let them be a reminder that Jesus can turn even ashes into things of beauty for each of us! 

So let us journey together through Lent to a new way of looking so that we see the beauty shining forth. 

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