How fitting, and how tragic, that our long collective chain of excess and consumption should end in a toxic pile of coal ash dumped into a river, just a few miles from us.
On Ash Wednesday, many Christians will seek to have ashes placed on their forehead as a sign of their mortality. The priest or minister will offer a sign of the cross with the fine-grained ash and offer the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It can be a powerful moment of intimacy and vulnerability.
The ash isn’t just about us. Ash is also a reminder of the impermanence of things, those treasures that seem so important to us. Shiny and new now, they too will someday be ash.
But perhaps we can see ash as something even beyond that: as a sign of our failure to give proper thanks and regard for blessings of our lives, including the created world. Our constant desire for more, newer, faster, cheaper leads us to cut corners and disregard the harm done when it isn’t right before our faces.
That harm is often hidden from us (because we want it to be), but a 39,000 ton pile of coal ash spilled into a river is not so easily ignored. As consequences and metaphors go, this one’s kind of hard to miss.
On Ash Wednesday we are called to repent. Repentance is an individual thing, but it also an act of a community that recognizes that it has fallen short of the gifts given to it.