Excerpt from Joel 1:2-12, 12-17
"Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm of my holy mountain! For the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!"
Two summers ago, the usually crystalline blue sky above Santa Fe was thick with smoke and ash. Three hundred miles away, the White Mountains of Arizona were being consumed by the Wallow Fire. Two weeks later, a new fire in New Mexico exploded to 40,000 acres in one day, forcing evacuations of towns and pueblos. After weeks "of clouds and thick darkness," the fire became the largest in the state's history. Ash rained down as far as Oklahoma.
Wildfires are a fact of life in the West, but these monster infernos are new - due in large part, ironically, to fire suppression. Periodic natural wildfires keep forests healthy by thinning out underbrush. Quashing them for the last century allowed spindly trees to proliferate and turned Western forests into fuel dumps for firestorms.
In the UCC church of my childhood, we didn't "do" Ash Wednesday. Getting marked with ashes and hearing Joel's call to repentance and fasting was for Catholics, not us rational Protestants.
As an adult, I appreciate this yearly ritual of repentance. Just as healthy forests need periodic fires to burn away the underbrush, we need this day to begin to clear out the spindly, sickly stuff of our souls and make room for new life.
We do that in a tangible way at the church I serve. During the service tonight, we'll write down the things we want to "give up for Lent" - the fears, hurts, angers that keep us from God. We put our lists in the fireplace at the back of the sanctuary and turn those hurts and angers back to the ashes they are. Then we come forward to receive the sign of the cross, drawn in ashes, and begin Lent's journey to Easter.
God of all creation, your fire can give a forest new life. So, too, may your Ash Wednesday call to repentance clear our souls and prepare us for your new life. Amen.
About the Author
Talitha Arnold is Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC), Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Worship for Vital Congregations, published by The Pilgrim Press.