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Ashes and Snow

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Ashes and Snow

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

(Psalm 51:7)

There's been a lot of snow, piled everywhere and still falling from the sky.  But when the sun is out, and the sky is that unique winter blue, the snow is transformed into a blazing expanse of white, dazzling the eye and demanding that you avert your gaze.  Is this what the psalmist had in mind when snow was invoked, the harsh glare of clean snow under an empty sky?

Or was the singer thinking about how Moses' face shone after being in the presence of the Holy One?  His shining face, beyond uncomfortable for the gathered community to witness, so bright that he veiled himself whenever he was in public.

I wonder if, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, if he shone with that white that is whiter than snow, dazzling with that sharp and immediate light.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Of course, snow doesn't stay white very long unless it's in an untrammeled, untraveled field.  The snow along the road turns dark and dingy, quickly filling with the trash that we drop as we move through our days.  We push the snow back, making room for ourselves once again to hurry onward, exposing again the cracks in the pavement, the rough places that are not yet made plain.

I am heartily tired of snow this winter, and it's not even the end of February yet.  But my heart still aches with the beauty of that white powder falling through the air and the grace of the landscape made both foreign and new with a windswept blanket.  In those first moments, before the plows have come through, before the hectic pace resumes, the world feels renewed, washed in snow.

It's a strange juxtaposition: being washed whiter than snow and made clean while tracing on our foreheads a smudge of ash.  Maybe this too is a mystery of our faith.  Just as a taste of bread and a sip of wine are a heavenly banquet satisfying our deepest longings, so too embracing our mortality in ancient words of dust and ashy fingers makes us a new creation, washed clean through and through.

I think the snow will stick around through Easter, though I'm sure it won't be today's blinding white when we arrive at the empty tomb.  But perhaps this Lent, these words from the psalm will be my daily companion:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

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