Ash Wednesday introduces Lent, a time for fasting and for prayer. It has rhythms of fasting and feasting: Shrove Tuesday is followed by Ash Wednesday, and Lenten fasting ends in Easter feast. In a Jewish tradition inherited by Christians fasting was associated with putting on ashes from the bonfire of vanity. Hence the ashes and name of Ash Wednesday.
Lent follows the story of Jesus’ journey through torture and execution to his rising from the dead. Because at its centre is a terrible death, Ash Wednesday has also become associated with public tragedies, and particularly those involving fire. In Victoria and South Australia people remember the Ash Wednesday Bushfires in which many people died. In times of war Ash Wednesday has also been associated with heavy and lethal bombing campaigns.
This Lent will take place against the background of relentless violence in Syria sponsored by so many parties. The people who made their way under fire across the Syrian border and into other lands where they are also treated as enemies will remain in our hearts.
For many people, too, Ash Wednesday will be forever associated with private loss: the deaths of family members and friends, the ending of relationships and dismissal from work, for example. It was once customary to burn the palms waved on Palm Sunday to make the ashes of Ash Wednesday. The custom recalls how the high hopes as Jesus entered Jerusalem gave way to their total collapse when he was executed.
But Lent ends, not on Good Friday, but on Easter Sunday, with the triumph of love and hope over all the things that make for death. Out of ashes rise new shoots of green.
At Jesuit Social Services we know that for vulnerable young people the ashes of personal loss are mingled with the loss of public neglect.
Hope for a supportive and stable family dies early for many people, whose physical and mental health are consequently affected. Their loss is intensified by lack of access to the effective educational and health programs that might enable them to contribute to society.
We also meet people whom violence and discrimination and hope for a decent life have driven from their homelands and diminished their spirit. On arrival in Australia their hopes have again been incinerated by the brutality of rejection, incarceration and contempt.
Ash Wednesday calls us to be realistic about our world and about the way in which human hopes are turned to ashes, sometimes by life’s vagaries, sometimes by the cruelties inflicted by our society.
But Lent also invites us to be companions of people whose lives have been scorched, to notice the small shoots that spring from ashes when people receive compassion, and to keep hoping and working for a world that is green and fertile.