Simple White Crosses and Crosses of Ash

Psalm 51

I cut through campus the other day.

I had decided to spend some quiet time in the library — reading and praying and pondering ahead to the holy season before us now. Although the fact that I had chosen a ‘window seat’ on the first floor meant I was distracted by the steady traffic of students walking and skate boarding and checking their phones as they made their way to and from class. More than one captured my imagination as I wondered about their stories… Either way, the time was past noon by then and I found myself hungry so looking for lunch I made my way across campus and past the memorial which has stood there these last several years.
I have paused before it before, of course, but never so close to the anniversary date. This time my eyes were drawn to the now dead cut flowers which had been laid there just last week. To the wreaths and the red wooden hearts bearing the names of five students whose lives where abruptly taken and whose parents grieve still and no doubt always will. And to the five white crosses leaning against those same precious names carved in granite.

All of my life I will carry the memory of that awful February day when madness wreaked havoc on an otherwise ordinary college classroom in my community. And this is also so: God “created in me a new heart” that afternoon — at least if one thinks of this as the kind of new heart spoken of by the prophet Ezekiel when he pleads for God to replace our hearts of stone with ones of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26) God put something new in me — one marked by heartbreak, yes — and the sort of fear which can come to all of us when we recognize the truth of our fragility. That we are only ashes. But there was also this: my heart was opened once more to recognize our tender connection to one another. And now this is so: I would never walk that campus the same way again. I would never do so without seeing students as young adults who are deeply loved by families and communities who are just striving to launch into adulthood in the best way they can. Yes, my heart has never again been quite as ‘stony’ as it was before that day.

And yes, this is precisely the sort of ‘new heart’ needed by David to whom Psalm 51 is most often attributed.  David, whose heart was so much made of ‘stone’ that he saw his own needs and desires cancelling out those of others. David, who orchestrated the death of another to cover up his own sin. Yes, David, whom Bathsheba could not have denied, even if she wanted to, but for whom the grief David would soon know would be shared because of his ‘heart of stone.’

To have a heart of ‘flesh’ is to know oneself to be utterly human alongside all others with whom we share this journey. It is to feel love and joy and hope and grief and yes, sometimes, despair. It is this sort of heart with which we are born, it seems to me, but it is for this we yearn to experience more fully or to have restored on Ash Wednesday and through this season of Lent once more. And so we seek to put ourselves in the right place to receive this gift again this year:

  • By coming together.
  • By praying ancient prayers.
  • By hearing words familiar to us now by mere repetition of hearing them every year on this day.
  • By confessing our sin.
  • And yes, by receiving the ashen cross on our foreheads once more.

And so back to my cutting through campus the other day. I was taken especially by those white crosses leaning against precious names on a memorial of granite. They are the same sort of simple painted pieces of wood which mark other places of unspeakable tragedy. I often pause to wonder at the names and the stories and the cherished connections which lead loved ones to return to places of loss to leave such memorials. And I wonder, I do, whether those crosses serve as signs of life and hope to those who traveled to put them there.

Because this is our ultimate hope, of course. On this day at the start of Lent we do not just receive ashes, but ashes traced in the sign of God’s great sacrifice in our behalf. Yes, these ashes are certain reminders of our mortality as we hear repeated, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But hearing these words which speak of our humanness, our sinfulness, our brokenness, we are also reminded that we are called to utterly and completely rely on the One who can place new hearts with in us. Hearts of flesh. Hearts meant for love. For hope. For kindness. Hearts meant for life itself.

  • What is the most meaningful part of Ash Wednesday for you?
  • Are the ashes a sign of mortality or hope or both?
  • What does it mean to you to have a ‘new heart created with in you?’ What difference would such restoration make for you?  For your community? For this precious world?
  • When has God replaced your heart of stone with one of flesh?  How did that make all the difference for you?


One comment

  1. Mike Wilson says:

    To me the ashes are a sign of both mortality and hope…when my wife died unexpectedly in 2011, I found myself concentrating on the the mortality, but the next year (and especially Judy’s grief group) brought me around to hope! So, when I accept the ashes, I do so with hope for the future, with my family, and, sometime down the road, when I am reunited with Carol.

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