I know they symbolise the beginning of Lent. I know they are the beginning of 40 days of penitential reflection. Throughout my time as a priest I have also been aware of the strange cultic power they have, even over people who hardly ever go to Church. Ashes are part of the cultural understanding of Catholicism.
Yet this year for the first time, probably because of something I have been reading by Ronald Rolheiser, they have come to symbolise for me so much of my own life that has been burned and reduced to ashes. Like us all I have crushed dreams. There are times I have felt as though I have power over my own life and that I am strong and invincible. As I get older, the realisation that this is not true has left me feeling vulnerable at times. I have had a sense of my own goodness, only to see it swept away by the stupid action or the harsh word. Everything reduced to ashes. Mourning for the losses.
Rolheiser says: "The ashes speak loudly of what demons I was meant to meet in each particular Lent." Jesus went into the desert to face his demons. For the ancient peoples, the desert was a place of trial, where there was no security. It was a place where people would find themselves by entering into the brokenness and pain that is within, mourning it and then finding life. In the early Church the desert was seen as anything that moulded and shaped the heart.
This Lent, your desert could be the Stations of the Cross, the extra ten minutes of prayer, the reading of the scriptures, the reaching out to help those you find difficult. They become the desert if you reflect on what they are teaching you about yourself. And when you learn to mourn for the brokenness within you that makes you hard-hearted, selfish, insular, it is from there that the Spirit can lead you into life.
Don’t let what you do for Lent simply be external observance. Let these things challenge you within, by your reflection on them. God will reach into your heart and do things within you and your ashes will be turned into a garland of joy.