One great image that still gets attention showed up on a lot of people's foreheads last Wednesday. Little gray crosses of ash smudged above the brow signal the beginning of Lent. At the imposition of the ashes, the priest is to recite, "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shalt return." Lent is the 40 days preceding Easter, the Great Fast, a time of prayer and penitence -- and it starts with dust and ashes.
There are a lump of coal and a pile of ashes at the entrance to Lent and at the heart of the Christian tradition. Ashes are the residue of burned-out fires and burned-up stars. Nothing would seem so appropriately symbolic of the lousy state of humanity. Cold and lifeless, ashes make it clear that something is not right, that human beings have settled in the dust and settled for the worst when they might have taken wing into the heavens and flown into the stars.
Ashes are also made out of carbon, the building blocks of life. When you say something is "organic," you're saying it is made of carbon. What makes the carbon black? It's been burned.
So, before we think of Lent as just the season of ashes -- a 40- day "moan and groan" and "woe-is-me" session, look at the next image the Church offers to people at this time of year.
On Wednesday the leaves from last year's Palm Sunday palms were reduced to cold gray ashes.
On Sunday we hear about the arrival of a living, soaring dove of Spirit, slipping out of heaven and into our world.
On Wednesday the church proclaims a 40-day period of solemnity and fasting.
On Sunday Jesus proclaims, "the kingdom of God has come near."
On Wednesday we are marked with the ashes of our finitude and mortality.
On Sunday we see the promise of eternal life as Jesus rises up out of the baptismal waters.
The dove descending from heaven demonstrates how the Holy Spirit gets back into our world. In the midst of our ashes, the dove as a symbol says to us -- "You can be a diamond someday."
The late Malcolm Forbes, when publisher of Forbes magazine, liked to say that "Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs."
For the Christian, the season of Lent reminds us that diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that have been touched and transformed by the dove.