The Shape of God's Grace

Julia Attaway examines the symbolism of Ash Wednesday

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- Posted on Feb 8, 2015

Devotional writer, Julia Attaway

Rend your heart and not your garments. —Joel 2:13

The phone rang, and it was Maggie. “Mom, can we buy marshmallows and roast them over the candles you bought for when we had the hurricane? Daddy said we had to ask you.”

It seemed a worthy use of wax and sugar, so I gave permission. The kids arrived home, only to realize they lacked skewers. Stephen solved that problem by retrieving some chopsticks from the kitchen. I found matches and lit the candles. The kids promptly set the marshmallows aflame.

“You should hold them further away,” I advised, “So they don’t burn.”

“We like it this way. And it’s faster,” Maggie replied, waving a sugary torch.

“Hey, what’s this gray stuff on my marshmallow?” demanded Stephen.

“That’s ash,” I replied. And with a start I realized that my city-bred youngest, who knows world-class museums but has never been camping, might never have seen ashes before. How odd.

After a moment Maggie asked, “Are ashes what’s left after something’s burned up?”

I nodded, adding, “Remember sackcloth and ashes in the Bible? Ashes are a symbol of repentance.”

As my eyes tracked burning marshmallows, I thought of all the things that needed to go up in flames to reach repentance: pride, the desire for control, yearning for the admiration of the world, self-indulgence, selfishness...the list went on and on.

If we were to put on enough ashes to symbolize all that, I thought, we’d be covered from head to toe and unable to breathe. Which is why, I suppose, we use shorthand on Ash Wednesday, and our outward sign of inward repentance is applied in the shape of grace: the cross.

Lord, rend my heart and reshape it in Your image.

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