In Sunday’s first reading, we hear that the king of Nineveh ordered everyone to wear sackcloth and he sat in ashes. In fact, we often read in the Bible that penitents wore sackcloth and sat in ashes or put ashes on their head. Why not just say dirt? Isn’t that the point, that a penitent would sit in ugly sackcloth and be dirty?
Well, no. Sackcloth, as you can imagine, is not only unfashionable, but it is rough and itchy. I’ve always imagined that it must not be good at keeping out the cool of the night, either.
But what always strikes my soul is the use of the ashes. Wood ashes, when combined with water, make lye, a terribly caustic chemical. Most of the farm families I knew growing up made their own soap with commercial lye, and everyone had a healthy respect for it. A small can of lye poured into a crock of water could have it nearly boiling in seconds. Children were to be kept away from soap making so that they wouldn’t get any lye on their skin and be burned.
If a penitent sweated or if dew fell, the water would combine with the ashes and make small amounts of weak lye. But it would be lye nonetheless. And it would itch, maybe burn. It would be terribly uncomfortable to be scratched by the sackcloth and then burned by the lye from the ashes. And after? We don’t hear about people being done with this ordeal. It must have felt so good to leave the sackcloth and ashes behind, take a bath, and put oil on all the places that were rubbed and irritated.
What itch is distracting us from closer union with God? What fear or pride burns at our souls so that we are not at peace with God? God does not want us to stay this way. God wants us to remove our sackcloth, bathe in His mercy, and feel His Love soothing us.
God made you and loves you because you are worth loving.