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But there's more to the story. The fire occurred on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Chaplain Sherer happened to be faced, at the time, with a dilemma. She was preparing to hold an Ash Wednesday service in a few days, but she had no ashes. Traditionally, the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from burned palm fronds, left over from the previous year's Palm Sunday; but in all the hectic preparations for her unit's deployment to the middle east, Barbara had not thought ahead about where she was going to get ashes.
The mess-tent fire presented her with an opportunity. "What could be more appropriate?" she thought to herself. She liked the symbolism: out of terror and destruction comes something worthwhile. Little did she know how appropriate the symbol would prove to be.
Let Barbara tell the rest of the story in her own words:
"The site was under guard, so I asked an MP to escort me to the firefighters who were working there. Things had calmed down, and they were just watching to make sure there were no flare-ups.
"I explained to the officer in charge what I wanted. He agreed it was a very appropriate request. I handed a cup to one of the firefighters, who walked to the rubble, scooped up some ash, and returned to me.
"'Is this enough?' he asked.
"'Perfect,' I replied. I placed the cup in a Zip-Loc bag and headed to my tent. Two days later I decided to open the bag and see if I needed to crunch up the ashes into smaller pieces. I was digging around in the cup with a plastic knife when I noticed the edge of something metallic. I reached in, and pulled out a cross. A flat, metal cross. It had some dark smudges on it from the fire, but it was otherwise undamaged. I could still read the etching on it: 'Jesus is Lord.'
"I can't even fathom the odds of picking the exact site of that cross out of the acreage destroyed by the fire. It doesn't matter. The message to me is clear: God walks with us through the terrible firestorms of our lives, and we are lifted unharmed out of the ashes. We may be marked in some way, like the cross of ash placed on our foreheads during Ash Wednesday. However, that mark is a symbol of God's love and protection.
"I wear that cross now on my dogtags. No matter where the Army may send me, or what God may ask of me, I will cherish this special reminder that God will never leave us alone to face the tragedies in our lives. With God's help, we will always rise out of the ashes."(2)
So what good comes out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday? You realize, of course, we're out of step with the larger culture, as we gather here to do what we're about to do. Our culture is becoming less comfortable all the time with the whole subject of sin. Our culture would rather not speak of the need for repentance. Our culture would just as soon let Ash Wednesday slip by - just as it lets Good Friday slip by. It is hard for the culture to see what good can possibly come out of Ash Wednesday.
Chaplain Sherer's story can give us a hint, though. When she picked that shining, silver cross from out of the inky black ashes of the mess-tent fire, she discovered a small symbol of how, in Jesus Christ, hope arises even out of the ashes of suffering and sin. We do not observe Lent in order to grovel in the realization of how bad we are; we observe Lent because we know that, if we faithfully and obediently make that journey of repentance, on the other side is the glory of Easter.
The prophet Isaiah understands something of the true meaning of repentance. Writing many centuries before Jesus, he speaks of the sort of fasting that honors God. As Eugene Peterson renders the prophet's words, in his Bible paraphrase, The Message:
"Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like? This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The glory of God will secure your passage."
The ultimate purpose of our journey through Lent - from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday - is not to drag ourselves down. It is, rather, to allow God to raise us up. By God's grace, out of the ashes comes hope.
1. My friend is Carlos Wilton, pastor of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in Point Pleasant, NJ. Much of this sermon comes from an Ash Wednesday meditation of his entitled "Out of the Ashes" delivered 2/25/04
2. Published on Beliefnet.com, 3/29/03