On Ash Wednesday, Lisa Nichols Hickman learned how to make soap. It reminded her that the journey from soil to soul requires the naming of ashes and the claiming of oil.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler” always preceded Lent in south Louisiana.
As a girl growing up in Baton Rouge, I knew more about Mardi Gras beads and the parade routes of New Orleans than Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. My parents would pack two ladders, one long board and two children in the car and drive south to New Orleans for Fat Tuesday, the pinnacle day in a weeklong Mardi Gras celebration.
After reaching St. Charles Ave., my dad would set up the ladders with the board stretching across the top to allow my brother and me to sit there for the best view. There we would scream, “Throw me something, mister!” and we’d wait for our hands to be filled with beads, doubloons and candy.
But even then -- when I was more interested in quick prayers to St. Expedite at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel than a long and ponderous Lenten penitence -- something about those Mardi Gras days left me eager to return home and scrub down with soap and water as quickly as possible.
Perhaps those suds marked a more appropriate entrance into the weeks of Lent than I ever realized.
Last year on Ash Wednesday, I learned how to make soap with a friend. You measure the lye, heat the oil and, at the right temperature, bring them together and stir slowly. The chemical process -- called saponification -- is dangerous, requiring gloves and safety glasses.
What we realized in the midst of making soap -- a cleansing agent -- was how appropriate it was to be doing this on Ash Wednesday. From the ashes of Wednesday to the oils of Easter morning, Lent is bathed in these elements.
Lye is formed when water passes through ash. Ashes yield lye. Stirring those ashes reminded me of everyone in our congregation who had grieved and lost over the past year, experiencing in a painful way what it means for us to be creatures of the earth, “from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” There were losses from cancer and suicide and the death of a young man.
But alongside the dust, there was the oil, the lubricating fluid of grace and extravagant love -- the selfless expressions of gratitude and service lived out among our congregation each and every day. An untimely death being transformed by resources donated to build a preschool. Widows preparing meals each month because our town is beyond the reach of Meals on Wheels deliveries. Youth finding ways to make a difference through creative service.
Ashes and oil measure the most important season in which we journey. From the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the oil poured out by the women at the tomb ready to anoint Jesus in his death, from the dust of the trail marking the way to Jerusalem to the spices and oil intended for a body laid to rest in a tomb, ashes and oil frame our resurrected reference to renewed life.
When combined, the cleansing agent that ashes and oil create is evidenced in Jesus Christ. He is the soapy Savior who forgives us, cleanses us, calls us, recreates us, marks us and directs us in our worship and discipleship. His ashes mark a love that, in its dust, is the deepest of human frailties. His oil of anointment, intended for us, marks a love that is extravagant and costly, unconditional and everlasting. It won’t rub off.
Last year, our church hosted an Easter event for friends from the local rescue mission. There I met Mike, a middle-aged man whose life is full of the ashes of addiction and the grace-filled oil of redemption.
Each night, before the doors of the mission are shut, Mike goes outside. This week he was doing just that when a state trooper pulled up beside him and asked if everything was all right.
“All right?” Mike said. “I’m fine. Why?”
“Because I can see that you are talking with someone -- and yet there is nobody around,” the trooper said.
Mike nodded, pointed up and said, “I’m talking with him.”
Mike knows too much about ashes. He’s just now learning about oil. That oil is poured out anew each night as Mike stands on the street under the stars and talks with God. The journey between ashes and oil has been one of penitence and one of salvation. For so long, Mike prayed those St. Expedite prayers for a quick fix. Now Mike knows the penitential truth: the journey isn’t flashy or easy. Becoming a new creation is marked by the shedding of dirt, the cleansing of filth and the scrubbing away of grime. That journey from soil to soul requires the naming of ashes and the claiming of oil.
The season of Lent is marked by ashes and oil, and from it emerges the extravagant surprise of Easter. No longer do I need two ladders with a bridge of wood across the top to secure the best place for the parade. Instead, I have two other markers that bridge the journey: ashes and oil. Even more so, through that journey I am bathed and cleansed by Jesus the Christ.
This Ash Wednesday, as penitents leave our service of worship, what I want to place in their hands is a small bar of soap labeled with a prayer like this:
Lent begins with ashes, the ashes of last year’s palms.
Sealed onto our foreheads, they mark a prayer for the journey ahead.
Easter arrives with oil, as the women who arrive at the tomb
With oil and spices are stunned to find their Savior alive.
Soap is made from ashes and oil. With it we are cleansed, refreshed, renewed.
The journey to the cross offers that same opportunity to come clean.
May this soap be a reminder of that process, for all of our lives have ashes and oil.
When they come together through Easter, we are cleansed and saved.
This Lent I don’t need to “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” Instead, I just plan on getting a little soapy.