In 1882 the Australian cricket team had its very first Test win on English soil at the Oval. The Sporting Times newspaper, in a satirical piece written as an obituary, commented that English cricket had died, “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. Almost immediately people began to speak of regaining the ashes; the ashes of defeat. The following year, after England won two of the three Tests on their tour of Australia, a small urn containing the ashes of a cricket ball was presented to the England team and so what we now know as ‘the Ashes’ was born. That urn remains in the museum at Lords, while a Waterford Crystal representation of the Ashes urn (called the Ashes Trophy) is presented to the winners of each Test series.
The ashes we receive today could not be more different. Our ashes are not the ashes of defeat; they are the ashes of victory. The ashes with which we are signed, come from the burning of palm branches from Palm Sunday of last year. These branches were used to welcome Christ the Saviour into the Holy City of Jerusalem before his passion, death and resurrection. These are our ashes, the ashes of victory.
These same ashes are a wakeup call for the soul. They remind us that those things on which we have come to depend in life, possessions, wealth, security and so on, all eventually end in ashes. No matter how hard we work, we take nothing with us when we die. All of it will fade like dust in the wind.
During this Holy Season of Lent, we try to free ourselves from the illusion of chasing after this dust. We do so by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer frees us from the mundane, almsgiving places the focus on others and fasting invites us to look inside our own hearts. These treasures are the treasures that last. They are fire, not ashes!
When the heart is attached to what truly endures we rediscover ourselves and are set free, we also discover God and are fulfilled. We may be no more than a speck of dust in the enormity of the universe, but we are dust that is loved by God. The Lord gathered that dust in his hands at the dawn of creation and breathed life into it. This is not the dust of failure; this is the dust of life. We are the dust of the earth into which God has poured his love and his dreams.
Lent is not a time for long rambling discourses. Lent is a time to realise that the ashes of my being are loved by God and with his help I can change my life for the better. As these ashes are imposed on our heads today, let the fire of love be kindled in our hearts. Be reconciled to God, regain your ashes and let them become what they are, the ashes of victory.
Abbot Brendan Coffey OSB