(Scripture reflection: Psalm 51: 1-17)
Just beyond the ruins of one of the crematoriums of Auschwitz II/Birkenau lies a pond with 4 gravestones with this inscription in 4 different languages: “To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. In this pond lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.” Besides standing near or in the gas chamber itself, this was one of the saddest places in Auschwitz. Millions of innocent people killed not just by gas, but by human ignorance and hatred, arrogance, and pride, by people who aspired to play God, who thought they knew without a doubt what was right or wrong. The ashes of millions of people were reduced to this small pond- no proper burial, no respectable honor of them, no name, no proper Jewish burial either.
While walking alongside the pond, we learned that this was the place where after the bodies were done burning, the ashes were simply tossed into this place, sometimes piled upon other piles of ashes even in the water. Each crematorium had their own ash pond for the ashes of the dead, and when there were too many, ashes were also dumped into the nearby Sola River, which runs through the town of Auschwitz. Nevertheless, this pond that still stands today, quiet and calm outside of the destroyed crematorium as a memorial to the victims of genocide, ignorance, and hatred.
I recently watched a clip from a video by the scientist and mathematician, Polish born Dr. Jacob Bronowski, who aired a series on the BBC called “The Ascent of Man” in 1973. In each episode, he would address topic of human development throughout history. In one particularly memorable episode, he addresses the topic of Knowledge and Certainty. His main point was that as humans we must be careful to say we ever know anything as absolute truth or certainty. Even the pursuit of science, he says, is profoundly human- it brings us right to the brink, but there is always more to grasp and more to learn. When we know without a doubt that we are certain of something, we then put ourselves in danger of striving to be gods, and acts of hatred and even violence against our fellow human beings could result. We must always be okay with the fact that we might be mistaken. If we forget that, then we forget ourselves and our own vulnerabilities and the worst can happen. In the episode then he is suddenly standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau by the pond of ash, where several of his family members perished. He walks into the muddy pond, kneels down, and scoops up water and ash, looks at the camera and says, “We have to touch people.”
In this profound moment the viewer realizes that it’s all about relationships. It’s not about how much you know or about how much you think you know. It’s not about striving to be the best or believing that you are better than someone else simply due to your race, gender, religion, education or socio-economic status. It’s about touching lives, embracing our humanity, loving the other for who they are, despite our differences. When we think we know what is best or who is best- when we don’t leave room for uncertainty, we put ourselves in danger of becoming arrogant or intolerant in the face of diversity, and the pond of ash will become more than just a memory- it will become reality again.
“We have to touch people,” Dr. Bronowski says while kneeling in the pond of ash. We have to be unafraid of people who are different, we have to be willing to embrace our own failures, our own mortality, our own brokenness. We have to be willing to embrace our own humanity…and the humanity of others. And that is exactly what Ash Wednesday is all about.
Tonight we will wear the mark of the cross as a reminder of our humanness. We will wear this mark as a sign of our mortality, our need for forgiveness and repentance, our need for God’s grace, love, and mercy. This sign is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to let others know of our holiness either, but of our humbleness. It is a mark we bear that tells the world that we all are broken and stand in need of God’s grace. The ashes remind us that tonight we begin the Lenten journey, our desert wanderings, our journey with Jesus to the cross. The ashes remind us that we are entering into a season of reflection, repentance, and a time of turning our hearts back to God, that God may shape and mold us into better disciples, ready to cleanse our hearts that we might love God and love one another. The ashes remind us that life is so fragile and fleeting, and we need to make every day the day that we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world- they remind us not to let pride or ego get in the way, not to make ourselves like gods, but instead to embrace uncertainty, embrace not just our brokenness, but the brokenness of the other, that we might touch people’s lives in the name of God rather than defeat, harm, or tear down.
As I stood beside Eva Kor, Holocaust survivor, looking at the destroyed remains of the crematorium of Auschwitz-Birkenau just beyond the pond of ashes, I realized just how much damage pride, hatred, and intolerance can do. Ashes still remain there today as an eerie memorial of those who lost their lives there. It is said that after liberation, many Jews went to the crematorium remains and scooped up ashes in order to give their family members some kind of proper burial, many of them in Israel. Eva, who has never been able to bury a member of her own family, took ashes herself and buried them in Israel in honor of her parents. In the case of the Holocaust, ashes became a symbol of death, destruction, and genocide. Ashes are often a symbol of mourning- so much so that like Dr. Bronowski, we long to express our sadness by wading into the muddy ponds of our grief and dirty our hands with ashes, just so we can honor, remember, and grieve a loss. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are all of these things, yes, but in a way, they are also symbols of promise and life, even of life everlasting, because we know that the ashes do not have the final word. We know that in the midst of wading through the ash, there is a God who calls out to us, who longs to cleanse our hearts, who is the God of life who longs to remove every stain, who has called us worthy of the grace and forgiveness offered freely to each one of us.
So tonight we gather around the ashes- the ashes of grief and pain. The ashes of pride and ego. The ashes that mark our humanness and our brokenness. The ashes that call us back to God, as we ask just as the psalmist did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” That is our prayer as we receive the ashes and Holy Communion tonight- as we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness, through the path that leads to forgiveness, through the pond of ash where we might find life even in the midst of hopelessness and despair. And may we find that when we are willing to reach into the ash and scoop some into our hands, that we embrace our need for God in the midst of our brokenness and humanity- and may we find that it’s all about setting aside our own pride, egos, and desires for the sake of another- that we might touch people’s lives, that we might be the change we long to see in the world. Amen.