Take it from a former Boy Scout, there is only so much one can do to rekindle a smoldered fire. Once the flames have died out, once the coals have begun to cool, it takes more wind than most of us can exhale to convince a bunkered fire to be reborn. (Hence, the secret ploy of many a Scout campout in my youth: Linger as long as you can in your tent, hoping that someone else would brave the cold morning to restart a dormant fire.)
Ashes make for little warmth.
The much-maligned doctrine of total depravity—a view of ourselves likely too distressing for the overly-therapeutic times in which we live—is a significant limb off of our Presbyterian trunk. Whatever good news we teach about the life-altering grace afforded the world in Jesus Christ, that news is always announced against the din of bad news about the state of our selves apart from God. John Calvin described our un-graced souls as dying embers in a long-dormant fire. Sure, there may be a speck of orange glow here or there amidst the ashen gray, but on our own there is not enough life in us to fire the imagination for God or thaw a frigid, inward heart.
I have always taken the "total" in total depravity to mean, not that by ourselves we creatures can do no good whatsoever, but that (perhaps even worse) no good we can ever do remains untouched, untainted, unstained by inflating self-interest or depleting deprecation. We are totally effected by our common depravity, which threatens whatever dormant image of God remains in us and taints even our best efforts. A bleak picture? Perhaps. Depressing? Yep. But it does serve to put the nightly news into perspective, not to mention those less-than-lovely moments in our own stories we'd rather not air to the world. Like quiescent ashes on a wintry morning, there is in us only a memory of a once-hot source of light and heat.
The Old Testament mentions ashes in numerous narratives, and always they are a sign of mourning and mortality. With ashes Abraham remembers his lowly station in Genesis 18:27; with ashes Tamar grieves the sad state of affairs in 2 Samuel 13:19; with ashes Mordecai wails at the news of Jewish persecution in Esther 4:1; with ashes Job wallows in his dilapidated health in 2:8; the psalmist in his lament "mingles tears with his drink" and "eats ashes like bread" in 102:9. You get the picture. Ash—all that remains from a dead and therefore useless fire—proves to be, when smeared over your mortality, a poignant symbol for life in earnest need of grace, our lives in dire need of God.
Celebrating God's great love in our lives without coming clean about our grim need for it is like ingesting a bunch of medicine before you even know what ails you. It's apt to be a meaningless act, and maybe even dangerous—the precious, potent grace of God can become a cheap lozenge of sentimentality. No, our own stark mortality is precisely the cradle that holds the gospel. Lose sight of the former and we've no vision for the latter.
As I introspectively spelunk the depths of my own depravity, in honest prayers of confession both public and private, I am unwittingly scoping out the very real estate where the Holy Spirit sets up shop and erects the gospel. Says Calvin, "Every person, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him." Ashes, therefore, not only mark our transience but also our turn toward hope. There is one who can fan the flames of light and life within us, bringing newness and grace with every breath. The prophet imagines just such an act, a gracious exchange: God giving his people "a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory." (Isaiah 61:3)
This makes sense of why Christians for centuries have marked the 40-day turn toward Easter day with a cross of ash on their foreheads. "I am but dust and ashes," we say to Christ. "I take up the cross of my own mortality and walk toward the day of your resurrection, wanting—needing!—to exchange my death for your life. And as I walk this way, transform me from within. I know oh-so-well the depths of my earnest need; pour into those deep caverns your astonishing new life."
Ash Wednesday—the traditional entrance into the 40 day Lenten season leading up to Easter Day—is a service of worship both solemn and joyous: a solemn reminder of our perpetual need for grace; a joyous celebration that in fact God has given it so freely in Jesus Christ.
By ourselves we are banked fires;
with Christ alive in us, we are simmering with life.