February 26 is Ash Wednesday
In 2020, it is hard to think of Ash Wednesday without also seeing the burned houses and forests and the charred bodies of animals left after the bushfires. The 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, which took many lives and for many people are still a pain-filled memory, also remind us that the bushfire season is not yet over.
For Australian Christians, Ash Wednesday and faith are nailed together, reminding us that faith, like summer, must reckon with matters of life and death. Our hopes and the things that give us confidence and standing are always at risk of turning to ashes.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday have a long history. In the Scriptures, ashes represent grief and a life stripped of complacency, comfort and resources. Ashes went with wearing clothing made of rough hessian in a dramatic sign of desperate grief and the abandonment of vanity and pretentions. To cover ourselves with ash leaves us exposed, without any of the adornments that indicate importance, physical beauty or wealth. We are our naked selves in all our poverty stripped of our appearances, as we stand before God, like a burned out forest devoid of the green grasses, trees, birds, animals and other forms of life that make it countryside.
As with bushfires, the ash of Ash Wednesday is not the full or the final story. Rains will come, seeds will germinate, ferns, bushes and trees will grow, birds and animals will return. Much will be lost, some species irrevocably, but life itself will continue. We grieve what has been lost but are encouraged by signs of new life. And we may hope against hope that out of the fire will come the human conversion needed to address climate change.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent that culminates in Easter, the celebration of Christ’s rising from the dead. In the Christian story, it marks the triumphant end of God’s journey with us in Jesus. From being born naked into the world, sharing our lives simply and unpretentiously, and being stripped naked of dignity, of reputation, of clothing and of life itself, he rose from the dead clothed in life, and promises us life with him. For us, too, ashes and grief are not the full story. The main story is that of God’s love for us in our nakedness, a love that will take us through fire to greening.
Ash Wednesday makes a claim on us as we face bushfires. It reminds us that we need to strip ourselves of care for reputation, of pretentions and of greed and face the stark and naked reality of our world with all the dangers and consequences of global warming. It cannot be business as usual. Emperors must become accustomed to going unclothed without faking insouciance. Ash Wednesday invites ordinary people like ourselves to look seriously at our world and ourselves, to hold our leaders to account, and to trust in God and one another.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.