Unquenchable fire

The Evening of Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51

File:0507 HRO Strandparty PICT5896.jpg10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

I learned something new this year.

We begin our Ash Wednesday service with the burning of the palm fronds that people received last Palm Sunday and brought from home that, with their ashes, we might mark the beginning of Lent.  We burn them in a small fire pit – and though I purchase commercially prepared ashes to use, I also symbolically add some of the palm ashes to the bowl.  The purchased ashes simply work better; they have just the right mix of oil and fine ash to stick to a forehead without making a mess.

As the fire settled, I used the tongs to pick out a small, perfectly sized wisp of ash.  As I brought it towards the bowl, I realized this thin string of burned palm had a small glowing ember on the end.  But rather than return it to the fire and choose another, I assumed it was ready to go out, dropped it in the bowl, and we began the silent procession into the sanctuary, following the cross.

But the ember didn’t go out.

As I held the bowl for the prayers and opening words of the confession, I realized it was still glowing.  By the time we had finished the portion of Psalm 51, the bowl was getting warm.  I had to be careful not to stick my thumb into the glowing coal as I began to put ashes on peoples foreheads.  The bowl continued to get warmer, the glow seemed to grow larger, and I realized that the small ember had ignited a small spreading fire among that perfect mixture of charcoal and olive oil.

If our attendance had been much larger, I might have been in trouble.

The blaze of fire from the palm fronds was meant to speak to us of the fragility and evanescence of life.  The psalmist acknowledges life’s brevity: we are ephemeral like grass.  And the prophet proclaims, All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. But the prophet’s declaration leads to the confession that though we are fickle, the promise of God is not: “the word of God will stand forever.”

Like that small ember slowly spreading through the ashes, God’s promised grace endures and spreads and sets alight not just a few hearts here and there but, quietly, patiently, like yeast spreading through the whole loaf or a mustard seed cast into the ground, it works relentlessly to transform the whole world.

May it ever burn within me.

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