The ash from Wednesday traditionally comes by burning the branches from Palm Sunday of the previous year. The waving of palms on the streets of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus’ triumphant entry. A day later they were shouting ‘crucify him’. Everything turns. Burning the palms is like burning memories. The European colonial powers still find it hard to let go of empire, swallowing the shame of imperialism. That’s why it’s hard for them to welcome the children of the colonised peoples as part of their family. Individual memories also cling to us. The struggle with the ego is the same, in the individual and in the nation.


But life is always beginning. This time round, let it be more simple, humble and kind. A new attitude to the new life. Sprinkled daily with small acts of kindness, shedding protectionism, domination and exploitation. The choice is always there: becoming the kingdom of God, being welcomed into the reign of God, changed. A second chance is infinitely available: God isn’t like us but wants us to become like him.
Ash means that everything is burned. It is the last visible sign of the past. Everything will go up in flame like this eventually, the cosmologists tell us. Apocalypse to come. Bonfire of the vanities today.
We can’t help but learn to accept mortality: all attachments, big projects, plans, fantasies. A holocaust sacrifice offered to the only real, the present moment. Burned by the mantra. The loss is painful yet not violent. A transformation by the great love that has no attachment, clings to nothing. The death of the ego feels terrible but is gentler than we fear. It depends how long we resist it. St Francis praised it: ‘Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.’
Ashes in the mouth now. Soon the sweetness of the Word of God on the tongue. The poison swallowed becomes medicine. Meditation brings us down to earth. God told Adam, ‘you are ash and will return to ash’. The truth of impermanence that we postpone. Like an agenda item that no one wants to discuss but eventually takes over the meeting. Ash Wednesday prepares for Good Friday. Fear is burned away too in the fire of love.
Lent is a time of joyful grieving – loss and recovery, restoration to true health. We wean off fake medicines, false consolations. We face the stark-naked reality stripped of decoration. We discover the transcendent beauty, the treasure in earthen vessels. Holy grail. Alchemist’s secret. Pearl of great price. Prodigal Son returned. Eternal life that has not been born and can never die. Eternal birth that consumes death.
Nothing to fear. Do not fear nothingness.
Jesus said don’t look sad about this, make your face shine, because it’s not sad. Let the ashes themselves rub off. Say the mantra like a lover.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2021