One of my great joys is spending time with a fantastic group of girls as their Girl Scout troop leader. Contrary to what some may believe, cookies are not the official dessert of Girl Scouts, at least not for my troop. Nothing beats the decadent flavor of a marshmallow, still warm and gooey from the fire, combined with the chocolate, gently melting from the heat of the marshmallow, sandwiched between two crispy graham crackers. S’mores are the best!
It was during the many years of roasting s’mores that we learned that the best way to clean our metal toasting forks when the marshmallow goo becomes troublesome between batches is to expose them to the flame, to let the fire do the work for us. So, we would insert the fork, covered in lumps of white molten sugar, into the heat of the flame. The molten lumps would swell and ignite, grow more bulbous, pulsing like some living being, then fade to crusty lumps of black ash coating the end of the fork. This is the image that came to mind for me today, Ash Wednesday. The end of the toasting fork: clean, ready for action, but covered in ash, charred and scarred from previous encounters with the flame.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. And in the middle, there’s a lot more dust. We are birthed from all the elemental dust of the universe, shining and new. We head out into the world. We live. Sometimes life is sweet. Sometimes life is hard. And every now and then, we need to return to the fire, let the breath that fuels the flames urge on the fires around us so that they burn away the sticky residue of our past until we are covered in ash. The toasting forks that have seen a campfire or two might look rough. Even after a trip through the dishwasher, they don’t recover that shiny metallic fresh-from-the-store finish. Their trip into the fire has changed them. As we are marked with the cross of Christ today, we accept that we have been changed, too.
Walt Whitman in his poem There was a Child Went Forth intones, “There was a child went forth one day; / And the first object he looked upon, that object he became; / And that object became a part of him for the day, or part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.” Each day, our experiences become a part of us. On Ash Wednesday, as individuals,we recognize those objects that have become a part of the self. We get to name them, one by one. Objects of beauty and sadness, anger and grief, pain and love, confusion and joy, and myriad other impressions fill our days. As a community, we recognize our shared story, those celebrations and challenges that have become a part of us. We face them and have an opportunity to accept that they are a part of us. And then we can turn and place them in the fire. While they continue to exist as a part of us, they are transformed through the burning fire of God’s spirit.
On the doorsteps of another Lent, we begin the journey towards wholeness, applying the salve offered by the restorative work of a loving Christ. Scarred by life’s experiences, yet also indelibly marked as Christ’s own beautiful child, we go forth each day, or part of a day, for many years, or stretching cycles of years, gratefully proclaiming God’s healing love from the ashes.