Raised from the Ash Heap

Burnt AshesAsh heap: the place where forgotten or marginalized persons, events, artifacts, ideologies are relegated.

Today is Ash Wednesday, traditionally a time when Christians place ashes from the burned palms fronds from the previous year Palm Sunday on their foreheads. Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of the season of Lent, the weeks before Easter and a time of self-denial as an act of repentance, or re-thinking things. Actually, all major religions have a period of self-denial at its core: Jews have Yom Kippur. Muslims have Ramadan. Christians have Lent.

Lent is a good time to pause and rethink how we live and think. Most of us go through each day with blinders on. We’re blind to the ongoing armed conflicts in the world. We’re numb to the daily deaths from gun violence. We’re frustrated with the economy, affordable health care, and education. And then there are the social issues of poverty, race, mental health, immigration, gender equality, marriage equality, and the list goes on forever and ever.

Ash Wednesday is a good time for us to stop and remember that there are real people, real events, real issues that have been relegated to the ash heap. They are tossed there, removed from our pristine and scenic lives, so we don’t have to see, touch, smell, taste, or feel their presence or be reminded of their existence.

There is a Psalm from the Hallel (Hebrew for “praise”) that observant Jews recite during major holidays. Psalm 113 through Psalm 118 make up this unit. In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus and his friends sang a psalm during their last meal together, which was the Passover. That may have been the Hallel. Psalm 113 begins the Hallel:

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
    praise the name of the Lord.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to its setting
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

What I love about this psalm is the intimacy of God as the helper of the needy. Raising them from their dirt floors. Lifting them from the ash heap. Seating them with rulers and heads of state where they will not be forgotten.

Ash Wednesday is the reminder that we have all been raised from the ash heap. Lent is a time when we pause to examine our own lives and rethink how we – especially we in the First World – contribute to relegating others to the ash heap. We need to remember how we too have been raised from the ash heap. They will not be forgotten because God’s faithful will not forget.

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