Ashes are the powdery residue of matter that remains after burning. Although physical forms differ a lot and appear all separate from each other, once they are burnt, they unite by taking the same shape: ash.
Traditionally ash shows the illusion and fragility of our human perception. It reminds us that in the presence of maximum Light all our visible diversities, with all their jealousy and competition, inevitably dissolve.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar, marking the beginning of a 40-day period of prayer and purification. At services on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful with the words “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
The use of ashes for purification is very ancient and common in many religious traditions. Periods of fasting, purification and abstentions are also typical of shamanic paths and mystery schools.
Purification and abstention during Lent, far from being self-punishing acts, represent cleansing and healing processes aimed at allowing a more direct and authentic connection with our deepest nature and the Divine.
During this time we can choose to make a brief inventory of our attachments, identifying those causing more misery and pain, and then deciding to release one of them for 40 days. This is probably one of the best gifts we can do to ourselves and others. If we keep doing things that create misery and pain both for us and others, abstaining from them can be a way to see how our life could change.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that all physical forms, no matter how different they are, whether they look beautiful or ugly, in the end inevitably become just ash and dust. It reminds us that we are not here forever, challenging us to release what causes grievances and to do our best everyday to find the truth which abides in the silence of our heart.
“The dead are silent because they live, just as we chatter so loudly to try to make ourselves forget that we are dying. Their silence is really their call to me, the assurance of their immortal love for me.” (Karl Rahner)