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I cannot begin to imagine what it will be like for Canberrans to celebrate Ash
Wednesday this year so soon after the dreadful events of 18 January. Bushfires
have touched many other parts of Australia in recent months as well and continue to burn in Tasmania and Victoria.
Ash Wednesday 2003 is also the 20th anniversary of the day when bushfires swept across Victoria and South Australia, resulting in the deaths of more than 70 people, destroying hundreds of buildings, killing thousands of livestock and razing millions of hectares of countryside.
What emotions and memories will the sight and feel of ashes arouse in those who watched in terror as their homes were reduced to ashes and who, covered in ash from head to foot, searched through the ruins afterwards hoping to salvage some treasured mementoes; the thousands who had to flee their homes or who waited in fear, expecting to be evacuated at a moment's notice; the entire population of the city 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.
For these people, for the families and friends of those who were killed and injured, for firefighters, emergency workers, medical personnel, counsellors, 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.
The Ash Wednesday prayer of blessing will have particular significance this year for these people and for all Australians.
Lord, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness
and bless all those who receive these ashes.
May they keep this lenten season
in preparation for the joy of Easter.
The bushfires, however, brought not only death and destruction. There are numerous tales of bravery, selflessness and compassion - firefighters putting their lives on the line, community groups feeding and housing the displaced, school students donating the shirts off their backs to young people who had lost everything. 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 around this country who have been affected by bushfires. 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.