Lent formally begins February 17th with ashes placed on the foreheads of those attending
church services. A somber message of “Repent and believe the good news,” or “Dust you are
and to dust you shall return” usually accompanies those ashes. A completely new view of
ashes arrived when I read the following about the Jewish Holocaust in Caste: The Origins of
Our Discontent
by Isabel Wilkerson. It greatly expanded and deepened my perception.

“The ash rose from the crematorium into the air…and settled onto the front steps and
geranium beds of the townspeople living outside the gates of death at Sachsenhausen, north of
Berlin. The ash coated the swings sets and paddling pools in the backyards of the townspeople.
There was no denying the slaughter and torment on the other side of the barbed wire. …The
people had ingested the lies…that these prisoners—Jews, Sinti, homosexuals, opponents of the
Reich—were not humans like themselves, and thus the townspeople swept the ash from their
steps and carried on with their days. Mothers pulled their children inside when the wind
kicked up, hurried them along, to keep them from being covered in the ash of fellow human

This appalling reality led me to consider how ashes in our era continue to hold stories of
suffering. These stories beg us to change our ways, to be honest about the missing pieces of
love and human kindness meant to be rooted in our lives.

Ashes are grimy, dirty, not easily washed off. Like ashes sticking to our foreheads, the
grayness of suffering clings to ourselves and our society. These ashes show up everywhere.
Crematoriums today are filled with the remains of thousands and thousands of loved ones
who’ve died from Covid-19. The charred ruins from wildfires tell the suffering of humans,
creatures, and nature. The ashes of small campfires in the woods warming homeless
persons remind us of the millions of humanity without homes or the warmth of a welcome.

Even the blessed and burnt palms of Ash Wednesday speak silently about suffering, cut
indifferently from their green home and without thanks for how they are to be used.
I think, too, of the gray film of illusion and indifference that coats and adheres to the minds
and hearts of a culture destroying itself by extreme individualism, beliefs of superiority
over other humans, religious hypocrisy, destructive violence, absorption in self-adulation
and consumerism. I ask myself about the ashes in my own heart as Lent approaches. How is
it that I might be contributing to the suffering that exists? What will I do to ease this?

Fasting in order to lose weight or “giving up” certain foods—these are rather worthless
activities in affecting the quality of our mind and heart. When Easter arrives we pat
ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. But focusing on the lessening of suffering
both near and far away by our deliberate decisions such as complying with Covid-19
restrictions to protect people from dying, ceasing negative words and actions, caring for
the environment, listening generously to the distressed, comforting ill and grieving
persons— these Lenten practices gradually release what clings to our unloving. They
reveal the divine goodness that shines free of all ashes within our compassionate hearts.

Abundant peace,
Joyce Rupp