|Spring Soul Cleaning
(This piece is authored by Diana Butler Bass – a theological and historian with a love for the church and a desire to see it prosper. Check out her newest book “Grateful” and then go back to “Christianity After Religion” and “Christianity for the Rest of Us”. You’ll be glad you did, if you have a heart for your church.
Diana writes for Ash Wednesday: A couple weeks ago, I went to the drug store for toothpaste. As I stood in front of the shelves, I noticed something surprising. Nearly every brand had a new product among the mint flavors and fluoride options – charcoal whitening toothpaste. Charcoal toothpaste? Really?
Curious, I bought it. And, it turns out that it works. Charcoal possesses purifying properties. As a product of ash, it filters and cleans. The World Health Organization even recommends ash as a soap substitute in case of emergencies when other cleansers might not be available.
All of this has me thinking about Lent, the beginning of which is today, Ash Wednesday. For Christians, the day includes the ritual of marking the forehead with an ashen cross as a minister intones: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a way of physically remembering mortality – as well as a call to repentance. Although no one knows when it began, the Lenten practice appears to date back about a thousand years. Early Christians, even before the Lenten ritual we know, associated public penance with “the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Ashes became synonymous in Christian spirituality with sin and death. To mark one’s self with such was to recognize sinfulness and to beg for mercy.
And it scared me. When I was a little girl, I sat terrified in the pew, not wanting to go forward – having that gritty black dust fall in my eyes while some man in a cassock told me that I was going to die. I hated Ash Wednesday. I still have a very hard time with it. Lent can be so morbid.
As it turns out, ashes have another meaning – one found in the Old Testament. In Numbers 19, there is a purification rite known as the Rite of the Red Heifer. There, a heifer is sacrificed and its ashes mixed with water. The water is then sprinkled in any place of defilement to make it clean. Indeed, in the New Testament, the author of the Book of Hebrews seems to refer to the use of ashes for purification (Hebrews 9:13).
Thinking about ashes and cleansing offers an interesting alternative for Lenten spirituality – a season of spring soul-cleaning. I grew up in a time when we did spring housekeeping, a yearly ritual of polishing things, washing windows, dusting corners, and airing out blankets and pillows and rugs in the warming air. I loved those spring days when my mother asked me to help, tackling what we had avoided, straightening up neglected messes. When we finished, the house seemed new! Spring housecleaning was a way of starting fresh.
Soul-cleaning needn’t imply we are filthy, worthless people who must be made pure in order to know God or do good or be worthy. We aren’t impure in that way. In the same way that my house isn’t “impure” at spring housecleaning time – it is just dusty, cluttered, and a bit stuffy – so it is with our lives. Winter can foster spiritual complacency, perhaps. With so much inside time, our souls revel in coziness, warmth, and comfort. Winter spirituality can let us settle in. Things get disordered, overlooked.
But Lent shakes things up. Those ashes remind us that this is a new season. To get off the sofa, poke in neglected corners, to open the windows. Indeed, many religious traditions see ashes as cleansing. Native peoples burn sage to heal, offer blessings, and banish bad spirits. Some traditions scatter ashes on wind or water as a way of transporting a soul to God or to symbolize rebirth. And others see ashes as an icon of energy and fertility (think volcano!). Indeed, ashes are themselves a product of transformation. When something is burned – when a thing meets fire – ash is created.
Ash is about cleansing, creativity, and change. Lent is so much more than remembering death and repenting sins. Ash Wednesday offers a new start, new possibilities, and a pathway of transformation.
Whether you practice Ash Wednesday and Lent or not, whether you are one of my Christian readers or one who embraces a different faith, I invite you to this holy season of soul-cleansing! After a long cold winter, spring awaits.