Thursday, March 03, 2022

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Ashes


On the first Thursday of every month, a group of us join to blog about a spiritual topic. I'm hosting today, on the first Thursday of March, and since yesterday was Ash Wednesday, I chose the topic of Ashes. Feel free to join in and link to a post on your blog, whether you've ever posted with our group before or not! I'll round up the contributions as the day goes on.

For at least a thousand years, Christians have used ashes in their worship during Lent, and especially on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Ashes are associated with penitence and grief as far back as the Old Testament. And in the modern observance, it's common to burn the palms from Palm Sunday and save the ashes to use the next year on Ash Wednesday. I love the symbolism of that, the way our joys can turn to sorrows in the blink of an eye, and then back into joys just as unpredictably.

In the Ash Wednesday service, the ashes are placed on the worshiper's forehead, and the words spoken are, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It's a reminder that you won't live forever, a reminder of frailty and impermanence. The ashes usher in the six weeks of Lent, when Christians prepare for Holy Week, the remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross on Good Friday, followed by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Depending on where you were yesterday, you may have seen people going around with smudges on their foreheads, remnants of ashes. Maybe you had some of that on your own forehead. 

In Isaiah 61:3, we read: "…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair." The ashes aren't supposed to be a permanent adornment. There are seasons of ashes, and seasons of beauty. And there are seasons when the beauty and the ashes are all mixed up together, joy and grieving coexisting in our lives inextricably. Whether or not you mark Ash Wednesday by having ashes imposed on your forehead, you've experienced the ashes of life. Maybe you're experiencing them right now.

Back in 2018, I wrote this poem for Ash Wednesday:



I’m here for the ashes.
I’m here for the dust,
for remembering that that is what I am,
and that that is where I will return.

I’m here for the ashes,
the remains of what I loved,
the palms from last year,
and carefully preserved,
precious dust.
Those palms mattered
too much to toss their remains away.
They became today’s ashes.
And that’s why I’m here.

I’m here for the ashes,
for the reminder that though my flesh is solid now,
it will die.
The smudge on my forehead
will wash away,
but I will still be mortal,
headed for my expiration date.

I’m here for the ashes,
so smear them on me,
whispering as you do,
remember that you are dust.”
Precious dust,
but dust nonetheless,
a temple filled with the Holy Spirit
that one day will fall

I’ll leave with the ashes,
and through my day I’ll see others
with dusty marks on their faces,
as they too have been reminded
of what they are.
Beautiful and impermanent,
valuable and temporary,
needing to be
swept up
with a broom.

There are other places to get
roses and accolades,
work and fulfillment,
conversation and snacks,
but this is the only place I know
where they are imposing ashes today
that’s why I’m here.
For the ashes.


© Ruth Bowen Hersey


During Lent this year, I have a lot to rejoice over, and a lot to mourn. It's one of those very complicated seasons. And the ashes remind me that neither the highs or the lows last forever. They both pass, washed away and replaced by something we won't even see coming. And God's presence will be with us through all of it, guiding and sustaining, saving and preserving. 

Chris is reflecting on ashes. What stays? What goes? What effect does the fire have on us?

Margaret is remembering that although she is impermanent, she is also enough.

Ruth Ayres is learning lessons from a season of enforced stillness.


Maureen shares powerful thoughts on a "time of ashes," from seeing President Biden with that tell-tale smear on his forehead to dealing with death in her own life. 

Carol is thinking about Lenten seasons in the past, and how this year will be different.


Denise, like me, just made a move to a different country. She's thinking about the ashes in her new home. 


Karen said she almost skipped today. You'll agree with me that it's great that she didn't!



Fran Haley said...

Ruth: The "ashes" prompt you chose is so compelling. It brought many images to mind, offering an opportunity for reverent reflection (for is this not the focus of the Lenten season, along with repentance, belief, and gratitude?). I enjoyed tying these images together to find deeper meaning. Your poem - just stunning. So many beautiful lines on the temporal nature of our existence here... setting the stage for the glory of the Resurrection. I grew up in church but Ash Wednesday wasn't part of our tradition. I savor it now. Thank you for this today.

My link:

Chris Margocs said...

Ruth, your poem is a thoughtful testament to the pause that Ash Wednesday brings, the reminder of our mortality. I think my post is a complement to yours:

Margaret Simon said...

Thanks for hosting today.

Ruth Ayres said...

Thank you for the prompt and for the lovely explanation.

Karen Eastlund said...

Thank you, Ruth, beautiful. I too have come to appreciate the imposition of ashes, though it was not in my tradition earlier. Even after I have them smeared on my forehead, I look in the mirror and am surprised. I will try to write later... so far I'm flailing.

Ramona said...

Ruth, thanks for your prompt. I loved remembering learning about Ash Wednesday when I taught at a girls' Catholic school. Your poem is perfect. And I loved your words: "God's presence will be with us through all of it, guiding and sustaining, saving and preserving." Your words comfort and give hope.

Maureen said...

Thank you for this prompt, Ruth, and your reflections. I particularly like your words about the symbolism of palms to ashes, "the way our joys can turn to sorrows in the blink of an eye, and then back into joys just as unpredictably."

Carol Varsalona said...

Ruth, I am thankful to you for choosing this topic. Oftentimes, I do not think about ashes deeply enough, nor have I written on this topic but I have experienced the ashes of life. The beauty of Lent is that we can move through a season of penitence and still experience the joy of the resurrection at the end. Joy to sorrow and back to joy: such deep emotions you offered us to think about. My slice of life is combined with my SJT post.You can find it at

Denise Krebs said...

Ruth, thank you so much for hosting today, and for this lovely post. I am resonating with the words from your post "seasons when the beauty and the ashes are all mixed up together, joy and grieving coexisting in our lives inextricably." Thank you for that.

My post for SJT is at

Karen Eastlund said...

Ruth: Thanks again for hosting. My offering is here: