Note: This post is adapted from my Ash Wednesday meditation at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS.

What a difference a day makes. One day you’re single, the next you’re on your honeymoon or on the other hand, a spouse dies, and you’re bereft of love. One evening you’re healthy and laughing with friends, the next you’re lying in a coma in ICU, fighting for your life. One day you’re eating tasty, rich pancakes with syrup on Shrove Tuesday, munching on Moon Pies from Mardi Gras, the next you’ve taken up the disciplines of Lent, receiving the sign of the cross with a smudge of ashes. As one of the ancient sages said: “the king of today will die tomorrow” (Sirach 10:10).

“Fat” is the metaphor the Bible often uses to refer to the prosperity of that king and his peasants alike. Eating the fat of the land is enjoying its good things. Peasants in the story of Deborah grew fat from the plunder of battle, reveling in bounty they would not otherwise have known (Judges 5:7). When the people were grieved at hearing the word of God, Nehemiah invited them instead to eat the fat and drink sweet wine, to celebrate, even as they shared good things with the poor (Nehemiah 8:6). Being and eating fat means you’ve got enough; you can turn your attention to other pursuits than daily survival. Maybe you can make art or reflect on a philosophical question or play music because you’re not preoccupied with where the next meal is coming from. Fat is blessing, abundance, goodness. It’s richness, protection, warmth, luxury. We might say it’s the marbling of life that gives it its flavor and juiciness, its appeal to the senses.

But “fat” also stands for the laziness and arrogance that so easily grips us. Those whose hearts are fat forget God; they begin to believe that their own efforts brought them their good things (cf. Deuteronomy 31:20). The arrogant, said the psalmist, have fat and gross hearts, and they smear the righteous with lies. The poet, on the other hand, delights in God’s law, a practice I suppose we could call having a lean heart, a life of discipline (Psalm 119:69-70). Fat and sleek, for Jeremiah, equals “sinful” (Jeremiah 5:27-28).

Along with these biblical images, I tend to think of fat as waste. We love our George Foreman grill because it’s designed to help us eat healthier, with the fat from chicken or a burger running off into a tray. The food is still tasty without all that extra fat; it becomes waste, poured into the grease can we keep in the freezer till it’s full and time to throw out and start another one. Fat of the wrong kind is unhealthy and harmful.

This Lent, I’m thinking of how much of my life is waste. Wasted time and effort for unworthy projects. Foolish choices that cost me money and caused me stress. Wasted resources, undisciplined purchases.

 

How much of my life and yours is like that? I don’t just mean that $4.00 cup of coffee or that article of clothing you wore once. But the lack of discipline, the indulgence, the costly mistakes as we gave in to our passions. The use of resources for ourselves that we could easily have been used to help our neighbor. Maybe that was long ago. Could be it was yesterday. But we ate the fat, and we became slaves to idols.

The remedy for our idolatry, the alternative to our fatty diet, is ashes. In Scripture, a common term for human beings is “dust and ashes.” We are made from the dust of the earth, the dirt beneath our feet. We are like ash from a fire, easily blown by the wind, inconsequential, giving no warmth and containing no beauty. Something to be scooped up and buried. A sage of old summed up: “How can dust and ashes be proud?” (Sirach 10:9). We are nothing. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Because we are dust and ashes, those who become acutely aware of their mortality and their creatureliness, their sin and their shortcomings, put on sackcloth and sit in ashes in the Bible. So clothed and situated, they mourn loss, they repent of sin. Ashes and tears belong together. “…I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink,” said the psalmist, because of God’s indignation and anger, the feeling that God has cast him aside (Psalm 102:9.10).

It’s not too far from associating ashes with sin to including them in cleansing rituals. In one of the Old Testament practices of purification, ashes from a sacrifice were mixed with water and sprinkled on those who were considered unclean from being around a dead body (Numbers 19:17), along with everything else nearby.

Interesting that ashes figure in soap-making. This has been true at least since the 6th century BC, the earliest record of it. I understand that some of the best ash for making lye water, an ingredient in do-it-yourself soap, comes from dried palm branches. Appropriate, then, that we use ashes from palms to mark ourselves with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday. They are both a reminder of mortality and a symbol of cleansing.

Ashes call us to the Lenten discipline. They ask us to give up the fat for leaner living. In other words, to put aside for a time luxury and indulgence and remember the source of all good in our lives, to think of those who have little, and to adopt ways of living that promote harmony, peace, and compassion. They are a symbol and a summons to discipline, to gathering instead of wasting, to healing rather than breaking, to action rather than laziness.

As we begin Lent, we are also reminded of the word of Leviticus that the “fat is the Lord’s” (3:16). The fat of our indulgence, as we surrender it to him. The fat of our good things, as we acknowledge that everything we have comes from the hand of God. We offer the sweet savor of the fat to the Lord, to use the Old Testament image. We seek to please God by the commitment of our lives during this season.

There was One who offered such a perfect sacrifice of his life to God. He died on a Friday and was buried, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But he rose to new life, promising us all that one day we too shall be truly human again, free of sin, never to die. The ashes of Good Friday turned into the fat of Easter.

What a difference a day makes.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

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