What kind of ashes do we choose? What ashes do we use and how?
Psalm 147: 16-17
God's command is sent out to the earth,
and the word of the Lord runs very swiftly.
God gives snow like wool
and scatters frost like ashes.
This winter we certainly have had snow like wool and frost like ashes.
I searched the Bible for places it discusses ashes, and most other references are either to sackcloth and ashes of mourning or to disposing of the ashes from the sacrifices on the altars.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah reminds us that our ashes cannot be of form only, but must be of substance, of action.
One of the most moving experiences of my field education (church internship) year during seminary came on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday. The church building had burned two years prior and we were holding services in the "sacred double-wide" trailer as we figured out if, and how, to rebuild the building. Traditionally, I understand, the ashes for the ritual marking come from burning some of the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. In this situation, we were not nearly so organized, but the pastor said, "We've got plenty of ashes around here—go outside and get some." I found one of the fallen and charred support beams out in front of the trailer that was being used as a border to a flower bed. I pried a hunk of ash off and took it inside and we ground it with a mortar and pestle. During the service, we mixed the ash with olive oil from Palestine and used that to mark the foreheads of people attending. This ash had meaning.
Out of the ashes, comes healing, cleansing and new life. That really is the meaning of the mark of ashes.
I discovered that those uses are literally true, as a search for "uses for ashes" came up with this product, a bag of wood ash.
Besides using ashes for Ash Wednesday, here are some of the other things you can do with ashes, according to the product description:
There are many great ways to use wood ash around your garden and your home:
1) Fertilizer: Wood ash is packed with potassium, phosphorus and calcium! Don't miss out on this great fertilizer! Adds potassium to your compost pile for complete nutrition.
2) Change PH levels in Soil: Wood ash reduces soil acidity as it is strongly alkaline.
3) Ward Off Slugs: Place a ring of ash around plants being destroyed by slugs and sit back and relax! The slugs who pass over the ring of ash are coated in the fine, dry particles. The ash acts just like salt on a slug and will dry that little guy up faster than you can say Bob's your uncle!
4) Protect Plants Over Winter: Heap wood ashes around fragile plants stumps like rhubarb, fuchsias, and ferns to protect them over the winter. Over the course of the winter nutrients from the ash will seep down to the roots of the plants as well.
5) Use as a Chicken Dust Bath: Wood ash in a box or crate makes an excellent dust bath for poultry.
6) Make soap: Soaking ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with animal fat and then boiled to produce soap. Salt makes it harden as it cools.
7) Control Pond Algae: One tablespoon per 1,000 gallons adds enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth.
8) Boost Your Tomato Plants: To give your tomatoes and other calcium loving plants a shot in the arm add 1/4 cup in the hole when planting!
9) Shine silver: A paste of ash and water makes a dandy nontoxic metal polisher.
10) Enrich compost: Before the organic compound gets applied to soil, enhance its nutrients by sprinkling in a few ashes.
11) Eco-Friendly Ice Melting: Melting ice and show with minimum damage to environment! Ash adds traction and de-ices without hurting soil or concrete underneath.
12) Ash Glazes on Pottery: Glaze your Ceramics, Pottery & Clay Art.
The Phoenix myth is also about new life out of the ashes, and I was happy to celebrate with my internship church their newly re-opened church building last month, on the fifth anniversary of the fire. I hope that they saved a supply of ash for Ash Wednesday, and I pray they run out of that supply of ashes before any more get created by a building fire.