Cinderella and the Ashes
Recently I read in Ronald Rolheiser’s Daybreaks, Daily Reflections for Lent and Easter Week, that the story of Cinderella, a century old wisdom tale, has some relevance for Ash Wednesday.
The name Cinderella literally means “the young girl who sits in the cinders”. Actually, she slept by the hearth in the ashes where her step-mother sent her to be humiliated. While I have not given Cinderella, the fairy tale, a thought since I was seven years of age, other wiser people have done so, and we are told that the moral of the story is clear: before the glass slipper, the ball gown, and the Prince, there is a time of humiliation. There seems to be a theology of Lent in this tale.
Ashes are mentioned forty-two times in the Old Testament, but merely four times in the New Testament. When they are mentioned they refer to incidents in the Old Testament such as Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah, when sackcloth and ashes were the dress of the day. In the Old Testament ashes are symbolic: first, of man’s humanity, his creation from the earth, dust, or ashes. Abraham called himself “dust and ashes” when he spoke to the Lord. God says to Adam and Eve in the Garden “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are also symbolic of mourning in the Old Testament, and last but not least, they are symbolic of repentance. We all learned this in Sunday school, or at Mass, or in another formative setting. So, on Ash Wednesday we stop to recall that we are humans, made from ash, and that we have not lived up to all we were created to be as humans. Then we repent.
It is interesting that more people go to Church on Ash Wednesday than on any other day of the year, even Christmas. Why? Receiving the ashes is an act of humility, and act of penance, but also, I believe, an act publicly declaring that we belong to God and to the community of believers to whom we are admitting that we have sinned. We wear our ashes like a tattoo, i. e. we belong to this gang or tribe that is serious about following Jesus into the desA ert and all the way to Easter Sunday.
To return to poor dusty Cinderella who we left in the ashes, we will need to take a step forward in the tale to learn the moral of the story. With the help of her Fairy Godmother, the former beggar who she helped, (you see where this is going now!) she is able to get her act together and be transformed. Soon she is taken out of the ashes and from the chimney, and then on to the castle for the Ball by the Prince.
This is both our lesson and our consolation as we prepare for Lent: “The Lord indeed raises up the needy from the dust, lifts up the poor from the ash heap, and seats them with princes.”