When I was growing up in Southeast Kansas, my family tried to heat our house mostly with a woodstove, to save on bills. One of my chores during the winter was to get a fire started in the woodstove before my dad got home from the plant.
The best thing you could see when you swung open the stove doors was a log-shaped mass of ash, because there was a good chance that, hiding under the gray layers, there would still be a red coal smoldering at the core. It is SO much easier to start a fire from a live coal than to have to break out the matches and start from cold scratch. A little tinder, a little air, and “whoosh,” a flame leaps back to life.
It has always been interesting to me that the Church chooses to start our Lenten journey each year with the sign of ashes. Ashes are a sign of penitence, of mourning, and of sorrow for sins. Ashes are what is left behind when a fire has burned out.
Sometimes the season of Lent finds us feeling as if our lives of faith are more ashes than embers, that what may have once been a blazing fire of zeal is now burning low, or even simply smoldering. This season gives us an opportunity to open up the dampers in our minds and hearts and beg the Holy Spirit to fan into flame those embers. Fasting and abstinence make us feel vulnerable—but they also make us remember that God is the only real source of life and fullness. Almsgiving may make us feel awkward around those who suffer, and may prod us with some stinginess, but it also fulfills Christ’s command to care for “the least of these.”
Whether this Lent found you with a fire already roaring or with some quiet coals needing new life, I pray that this season of penance and generosity will help you to open up your faith and your future to the God who comes to set fire to the earth.
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Collect from Ash Wednesday