Opinion: The sweet smell of ashes
Written by Shernell Edney
March 1, 2010
The Wednesday before last, I, like many others, went to church for our annual Ash Wednesday service. Truth be told, had it not been for our church's monthly newsletter and my pastor's friendly reminder a few days earlier, I would've completely forgotten about it.
As I entered the church, I had a lot weighing on my heart that I knew was consuming my spirit. These things had already begun to consume my days and I had achieved what I thought to be a level of functioning duality. I was walking and talking as if everything was on track. However, at the same time, I was an internal ball of confusion. I had countless questions that seemed to have no answers and perceived myself to be traveling down a path that had no familiar landmarks or signs of navigation.
Externally, I was prim and proper. Internally, I was panicked and borderline paranoid. Yet, here I was ready to worship. I sat listening to the Rev. Harvey Joyner tell us the purpose of the season and what it represents. He passed around sheets of paper and pencils telling us that we were free to write down a regret, mistake, trouble, or burden with which we were dealing. Once written we could fold the paper and pass it to the front where he would burn it in a fire to be disintegrated and forgotten.
My first thought was, "I need more paper." As I sat and thought about those things pressing on my heart, I felt like I wanted to cry. Surely God knew what was ailing me and if God hadn't seen fit to remove the pain yet then it wasn't going to do any good by writing it down. Or, would it? I decided to bundle up my thoughts into a few key words and quickly folded my paper to be passed forward.
While quietly reflecting on what I had written, I was all of a sudden overcome with a most peculiar smell. Oddly enough, it was one that was pungent, yet at the same time slightly intoxicating. I breathed harder to smell it again. There had to be some reason I was so taken. Almost instantly, I felt calm and knew the power of the scent.
It wasn't the literal burning; it was the symbolization that was taking place. So intoxicating wasn't the ashes, but what they meant. It was the scent of the sacrifice that smelled so sweet. My mind thought back to the countless passages of Scripture where whole communities built altars and sacrificed their livelihood. I never understood why burning animal flesh was referred to as a "sweet fragrance" to the Lord. But now I understood more than ever that it wasn't the actual smell that was sweet. It was the level of faith it took to sacrifice those things they held so dear that created an intoxicating aroma.
For me, I was holding on so tightly to some things that they were becoming my livelihood. I was beginning to measure myself by standards of the world and what the lives of others my age looked like. But God was not pleased. On the paper, now burned to ashes, were those very concerns. Left in their place was a sweet fragrance of faith; an aroma of letting go and believing that although still painful, God was able to work a miracle out of ashes. I wondered how something that is associated with death could be so inspiring.
Then, as if pleased that I was finally paying attention, God reminded me of the Phoenix. The great and mighty bird that rises from the ashes. Often I became encouraged by the thought of the bird's birth, but never processed the pain of the death. However, the death is necessary that there may be life again. That night, I had to sacrifice my pride and agenda. I had to allow my fears to die and be burned to ashes so that my faith could rise up as the Phoenix and soar.
Fast forward almost two weeks later. It is the beginning of a new month in a still quite new year that is just starting the shape itself. Although many of us have already decided which fattening temptation we will sacrifice this Lent season, let us reconsider sacrificing the egotistically fattening temptation of holding on to those things that we cannot control. Let us rethink solely shedding pounds of weight, but also shedding the weight of those things that we internalize and hoard from God.
It is, after all, in our weakness that God can show the unbelievable amount of strength that is available to us. Let us run to the safety of our altars and present before God the largest sacrifice of all, ourselves. We must not be afraid of the pain that will most assuredly come by allowing our insecurities to die, but rather immerse ourselves in the process all the while inhaling the sweet smell of the ashes. Our past mistakes, regrets, and heartaches being burned away and used as the fertile soil for our divine rebirth.
Edney is currently working toward ordination in the Southern Conference of the UCC. She received her M.Div. degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond and has a background in counseling, youth services, community outreach and corporate communications.