When it was my turn to honour Ash Wednesday among the churches of our town I went to my wood stove and scooped out ashes that were white and grey and black. They did not look any different than the ashes of my father and mother which are in two stained glass urns near the oak desk where I write. The ashes of the stove are not ashes of bones and nails and human faces loved. But they are the ashes of memory of those faces I kissed.
For the wood was burned in the fall when the weather turned cool and I spent more hours sitting in my chair across from the stove, reading and wondering and remembering. Wood was burned on All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day. It was burned on Christmas Eve. It was burned on my birthday in January, Bobby Burns Day. It was burned on Valentine's Day.
And not only on those special occasions but whenever friends gathered and the air and stars outside were sharp. To talk and joke and drink coffee and tea. To pray. To crack a book or Bible. Even strangers came around the fire. And the dogs too, a brother and sister, snow dogs, Malamutes, sled dogs with their thick fluffy fur who value the dry wood heat in its season, who carry memories themselves of ancestors and kin who huddled around fires and around themselves for the warmth they could get on a long Arctic winter night.
All these experiences were in the ashes. All the feelings. The humour. The hard memories that can bring water to the face. Prayers. Hope. Despair. The Incarnation. Immanuel. My birth. My death. All these ashes were mixed with water to honour Christ who loops birth with death, and death with resurrection, Christmas wih Easter, our old births with new births, tomorrow and eternity, heaven over hell, light over darkness.
So I put these ashes on people's foreheads: Baptist foreheads, Mennonite foreheads, Pentecostal foreheads, Anglican foreheads, Catholic foreheads. And something different, on people's palms, remembering the nails, and people took the ashes on both of their palms too: women's palms, men's palms, children's palms.
What we burn, our nights, our thoughts and dreamings and fearings, our ashes are what we are, black and white and grey, and it is also where Christ is and where all people are.