It may seem an odd combination, the symbols of penance and the rebirth of spring. Why does the church’s long wisdom juxtapose something that suggests dark death with something that leads inevitably towards new life?
One explanation comes from environmentalists, who teach that the muddiest mulch produces the loveliest flowers. In a compost heap, dead leaves, rotten vegetable skins and over-ripe fruit create a rich and fertile soil. If this all sounds too earthy, remember that the rites of the church have always reverenced the ordinary: water, oil, candle wax, palm branches, bread, vines, wildflowers, ash.
In a scriptural context, read the Book of Esther, which is admittedly a bit risqué. The beautiful queen who had hidden her Jewish identity from the king suddenly faces a situation where she must break the law, risking her life to save her people. She prepares by setting aside her jewelry and rich ointments, covering her head with ashes and dirt (4:13). She asks her people to join her; their gesture says: confronting mindless oppression and brutal violence, we feel ashen within. The mark on the forehead symbolizes a recognition of our human flaws, our desperate need for God. Esther is ultimately victorious: new life for the oppressed and preview of Easter joy!
Even in still-wintry climates, the days grow longer. We appreciate the extra daylight and look harder for the first hints of spring: crocuses, warmer temperatures or green shoots. Do these activities suggest how much we long for God’s reign of light?