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How Ashes Became a Symbol of Transformation

Ashes, like sins, can be transformed into something cleansing and health-giving.

Symbols of Ash Wednesday; Getty Images
Credit: Gabriela Bertolini

To give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning…—Isaiah 61:3

I was twelve the winter Mother decided to make soap.

We’d just visited a mountain homestead where the farmer’s wife was leaching wood ashes, which she would boil with rendered lard to produce her family’s soap. Mother was inspired. Soon, back home, a package arrived at our door: a soap-making kit. Proudly, Mother showed us the hopper that would hold the ashes over which water would be poured and the crock for holding the resulting lye.

And, of course, I was involved. It was my job to collect the fireplace ashes Mother needed for her soap. Week after week, scoop in hand, I shoveled ashes into leaky brown bags and stored them in the basement. Inevitably, I was called back to vacuum the fine ash silt that settled on the living room furniture. When I finally escaped, I’d run upstairs to bathe (with store-bought soap) to get the dust out of my hair and ears.

When spring came, Mother spent an entire day pouring water through the ashes we fed into the hopper. She boiled the resulting foaming liquid with perfumed oil instead of lard, but everything else she did just as the mountain woman had done, adding salt to the mixture and pressing it into molds to create bars of what—much to my surprise—was really and truly a fragrant and effective brown soap.

Ashes—like sins, I thought, remembering that long ago event—are dirty and ugly, coating everything around them in their gray pall. But in the right hands, those dusty, dead ashes could be transformed into something cleansing and health-giving.

Soon today I’ll join others while our pastor places ashes on our foreheads, a symbol of penitence. And as he does, I’ll be putting my sins in God’s hands, asking Him to make of them something He can use.

Father, may this season of Lent be a time of true transformation.

Excerpted from Walking in Grace.


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