Making ash

Today I dug the sifter out of the back of the cupboard.  I don’t bake very much, so it only comes out a couple of times a year – like today, on Shrove Tuesday, when we burn last year’s palms and then sift and crush the ashes to be ready for Ash Wednesday.
I have to admit, the people who do this commercially do a better job than I do – their ashes are finer, and stay put a little better when I thumb the cross onto people’s foreheads.  But I’m not about to give up making ashes.  The kids enjoy “helping” me burn the palms.  And while they watch the flames, we talk about God making dust, and palms, and people, and being able to see and love us and do important things with us even when we’re as small and messy as the ashes.
Then I go off into the sacristy with the sifter to crush the bits of burnt palm into soft, skin-ready ash.  By this time, I’ve been thinking about ashes, and repentance, and dust for days or weeks – there’s a sermon that needs writing, and this year, reporters to explain the symbols to.  But as the ash gets ground into my fingernails, up under the cuffs of my sleeves, and all over the counter, no matter how hard I try to contain it, all those ideas become tangible, real – and likely to spill on my shoes.
It’s messy.  Really, really messy.  The struggle with stubborn bits that won’t sift, and the time and effort it takes to tidy up what the flames have done makes the ashes a more powerful symbol of mortality for me.  My life is like this, too, after all.  Full of bits that don’t want to be smoothed out, leaking into actions and places I never meant for it to go – and just as vulnerable to destruction as the palms were to the flame.
I don’t talk about this part at the train station.  But what I do with the burnt palm bits on Tuesday evening is exactly what we do in church on Wednesday – exactly what the ashes invite us to do, whether we get them at the train station or at the altar.  We take all the broken, burnt, nearly unrecognizable bits of our selves and our lives; we sift them down to dust: discovering the material God uses to create us, and the place we all return in the end.  Then, with the sifted ash in hand, we offer it to God, allowing the palms and our lives to create a space for forgiveness, and become a symbol of faith to carry into a waiting world.