Ash Wednesday and Bushfires

Ash Wednesday

This coming Wednesday, 25th February, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

I cannot begin to imagine what it will be like for people in Victoria to mark Ash Wednesday this year, so soon after the dreadful fires that resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people, devoured hundreds of homes and other buildings, killed thousands of native animals and livestock and razed millions of hectares of countryside.

Bushfires have touched many other parts of Australia this summer as well and continue to burn in some areas. In January 2003, fire destroyed almost 500 houses and claimed four lives in Canberra. On Ash Wednesday 1983 dreadful bushfires swept across Victoria and South Australia causing huge loss of life and property. Little wonder, then, that many Australians, associate the term ‘Ash Wednesday’ more strongly with bushfires than with an important date in the liturgical calendar.

What emotions and memories will the sight and feel of ashes arouse in those who watched in terror as the fires bore down on them with impossible speed, who heard the roar of the advancing flames and witnessed day turning into night as the sky filled with ash and rained down burning embers, the thousands who fled their homes or waited in fear, expecting to be incinerated, who narrowly escaped the flames, who lost friends and family members, whose homes were reduced to piles of rubble and who, covered in ash from head to foot, searched through the ruins afterwards hoping to salvage some treasured mementoes?

For these people, for the families and friends of those who were killed and injured, for fire fighters, emergency workers, medical personnel, counsellors, forensic experts working to identify fire victims, for all who watched the frightening images on television, the symbol of ashes will evoke feelings of fear, helplessness, destruction, loss, pain, grief, and despair.

In the Hebrew scriptures there are many references to ashes representing human insignificance. Abraham says of himself: "I am dust and ashes" (Gen 18:27). This same understanding is expressed in the familiar phrase 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust'. Ashes were also associated with mourning and sorrow. Anyone affected in any way by bushfire knows what it is like to experience feelings of insignificance, powerlessness and mourning.

Natural disasters such as bushfires, however, not only bring death and destruction but also bring out the best in human nature. Out of the tragedy have come numerous tales of bravery, selflessness and compassion – volunteer fire fighters putting their lives on the line, community groups feeding and housing the displaced, people all around Australia donating generously to fund-raising appeals, flood victims in north Queensland pledging their compensation payments to Victorians whose homes were destroyed. It is the Easter story, a story of good coming out of evil, of death giving way to new life, of hope in the midst of despair.

As we are signed with ash this Ash Wednesday, our thoughts will be with all those who have been affected in any way by bushfire. We pray that new life will arise from the ashes of their hopes and dreams and that the love of God, the joy of Christ's presence and the strength of the Holy Spirit will be with them always.


Elizabeth Harrington