Ashes and wine

By Sam Candler

About 350 miles west of Morocco and about 550 miles southwest of Lisbon, there lies a verdant island, lush with greenery and life. Scientists now recognize the island as having been formed by an ancient volcanic explosion. The island was discovered in the year 1418 by one Captain Joao Zarco, sailing under orders from Prince Henry the Navigator. He found it virtually impenetrable, so thick was the forest and growth.

Because the forest was so dense, Captain Zarco named the island for the Portuguese word for “wood.” That word is “madeira.” Then, Captain Zarco set about clearing the land. It was hard work. Deciding that the only way to clear the entire island was to use fire, he and his men burned the whole island.

The island of Madeira burned for seven years. When the fire was out, the entire place was covered with a fine wood ash. That ash dissolved into the volcanic ground, combined with the clay and calcium already there, and an incredibly rich soil resulted, even more fertile than the previous soil. In fact, this became the same sort of soil which was conducive to fine wine.

So, people began to grow grapes in the soil! Thus was the beginning of a fine wine named Madeira. By 1495, it was being produced. It became, in Europe, the after-dinner drink of choice. George Washington is said to have drunk a pint a day. Thomas Jefferson toasted the Declaration of Independence with madeira.

Madeira — a fine wine, born of burnt ashes in the soil.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians put ashes on our foreheads. In doing so, we are following one of the oldest of Christian customs. At one time, not everyone in the Christian congregation placed ashes on their head, but only those who were acknowledging and confessing egregious sins. They made public their confession with these ashes. But in the Middle Ages, it became the practice for every Christian to submit to the ashes. The season of Lent became a time of public penitence for the entire church.

Today, the ashes mean these things, but many more. The ashes are a reminder of our origin from the earth. “Remember,” we say, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not the self-assured, comfortable, live-forever people that we try so often to look like. We are going to die, all of us; we know that. Ashes are a sign of that ultimate reality.

The ashes are also, of course, a sign of sin. We are tainted, stained, by our constant falsehoods and wrong actions. We are a people who know better, but who make wrong choices. It was not someone else who made us do it. It was not the fault of Satan. We were not possessed by demons. It was not the fault of our parents. It was not the fault of society. It was not our peer group or the culture around us.

It was us. We are responsible. We have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

But today, I propose another meaning for these ashes. Out of these ashes, these signs of our mortal nature, comes something else. Once we recognize our own responsibility for wrongdoing, once we acknowledge our mortal and dusty nature, the ashes also become a sign of fertility.

If we are truly repentant, and truly cleansed, and open to the reality of God around us, then we are also fertile, ready to give growth to greatness.

Out of seven years worth of ashes on the island of Madeira came one of the finest wines of that time. There is no way the wine could have been produced without the burning, without the ashes. In fact, it was the burning that cleared the ground in the first place.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are, likewise, the burning and clearing of our Christian lives. We enter a time for confession, for penitence, for realization of our earthly nature. But this is also a fertile day, a time for self-examination and self-preparation. Today is getting us ready for something.

Just as ground is prepared in the Spring for luscious growth, today the ground of our lives, the soil of our souls, is being prepared. Maybe through our confession and mortal acknowledgement, we are emptied, opened, made ready for something. We will mark our lives with ashes, but they are ashes of fertility and rich preparation.

In fact, we are preparing our souls for the presence of God. The dense forest of our complicated lives is too thick. It is time to burn it away and make ready the fields for new growth.

Our God awaits our openness, our fertile ground. God comes into our lives with forgiveness, with deep love – and with the smooth glory of a fine wine. Yes, Christians receive that wine, too, on Ash Wednesday. Christians walk to the altar twice. We receive both ashes and wine, the fine wine of Christ. We receive the sign of our mortal nature, but we also receive the sign of fertile and abundant life.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Past Posts