Living Lent like Cinderella!

The story of Cinderella is one of the most treasured fairytales of all time. It has been retold many times and has made generations of young girls say, “I want to be a princess when I grow up.” However, do we think of this story as a way to live the Lenten journey? We go back to the beginning of the Grimm’s fairytale and read: “In the evening when she had worked herself weary, there was no bed for her. Instead she had to sleep by the hearth in the ashes. And because she always looked dusty and dirty, they called her Cinderella.” Yes, Cinderella of the Ashes!

The Bible has a number of references about ashes. Dust and ashes are also synonyms of the word earth (adamah). From this word are derived ‘Adam’ and the Hebrew word for ‘man’.  Genesis 3:19 even makes a play on these words with: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," a sentence which is echoed in the Ash Wednesday service.

Another reference comes in Genesis 18:27. Here Abraham is bargaining with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He suddenly realizes that he, a mere mortal, has been speaking to Almighty God.  He says, "Behold I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes."
But ashes are also a symbol of repentance. In Jonah 3:6, after hearing of Jonah's message of repentance, the king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits “in ashes.”  In those days such kings were considered godlike.  In today’s reading, we see that, by sitting in ashes, the king of Nineveh shows his people that he is not immortal. Job also makes use of the ashes symbolism.  

In Job 30:19 he uses it to describe his mortality. In Chapter 42:6, realizing these limitations compared to God's infinite power, he uses dust and ashes to symbolize the intensity of his repentance. In the Bible, we see that this is done through wearing uncomfortable or damaged clothing (as opposed to fine clothes), covering oneself with ashes (rather than washing), fasting (rather than eating well). To sit or kneel on an empty sack, and then take a handful of the burnt ashes and pour it on top of your head was a sign of humbling one's self in front of God in the hopes that he would have mercy on them, and so the humbled one would receive God's help and pardon, manifesting, “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.”

In fact, the use of the cross is a reminder of allusions made in the Book of Revelation.  In Chapters 7:3 and 9:4 there is the description of those who have an identifying seal on their foreheads, and this seal is the name of Christ (14:1). In Chapters 2:17 and 3:12 it is even a new name. This concept comes from Ezekiel 9:4-6, where an angel of the Lord is instructed to mark all those who were troubled at the sin around them with a cross on their foreheads.

To repent in sackcloth and ashes, shows our intense remorse and grief concerning our sins. It shows the sincerity of our heart to turn from sin with all our heart and mind, and to now follow and serve God with all our heart, soul and mind. It shows a complete humility of spirit, and a contrite attitude.
Lent is a time to valuing our own devalued places—our own dark feelings of ashy anger and sooty sorrow, our shame and guilt, our personal falling short, our self-involved foibles and our self-justified cruelties.

But going back to Cinderella! Though she felt quite alone, Cinderella had her helpers- a fairy godmother, some talking mice, singing birds, etc. At times of crisis sometimes we too may feel very alone. It is important to realize that we always have people that are available to us, friends, community, family and acquaintances. We have the presence of Jesus, his mother Mary, the communion of saints, the pilgrim Church. Lent calls us to leave behind spiritual childhood and progress into the maturity of the Calvary way crossing through the desert. Similarly, Cinderella is asked to leave the security of her childhood and matures even in the midst of many mundane tasks. Keeping a hopeful spirit in the face of all the chores can be a considerable challenge. Life can be so busy and time can be short to find time to pray and solidify the life-giving relationship with Jesus. There are always step-sisters within. There are always inner and outer critics ready to find fault with everything we do. It is easy to project this so that we imagine that others think badly of us and we resolve to stay sitting in the ashes. Dealing with the mean step-sister voices within is a struggle for many people who cannot hear the voice of the Father saying: "You are my beloved in whom I am well-pleased."

In the Cinderella story, the beautiful dress plays an important role. Cinderella’s mother was aristocracy and the dress is a link to that noble status. A powerful Lenten Gospel is that of the Prodigal Son who is vested upon his return by his father, a very symbolic action. The father restores him to his dignity. Similarly, when we are baptised as members of Christ’s Church, we are vested in white. We are vested in the robe of the marriage feast of the Lamb.

In the end of such a story the protagonist usually gets a bountiful prize. This reward signifies the rich inner life that is the result of all our diligent seeking. The psychology of the story involves an inner shift, away from personal inadequacies to a stronger identity based on being a precious child. In the Cinderella story, she gets a husband, but it is not that the prince rescues her. She solves her own problems, even in the classic version, with the support and help of a fairy godmother. But this problems solving is done sitting in the ashes. Just like Job, just like Jonah, just like Abraham, just like each one of us!

But do we want to get dusty and dirty and sit on the ground and take time out? Do we want to experience the journey towards Resurrection even if it means suffering and dying to ourselves? As the tale of Cinderella reminds us, before the glass slipper, the beautiful dress, the dance, the marriage, there must be a valuable time of being humbled and waiting for the silent growth to take place. I think about the sackcloth and ashes some more. What would the equivalent be today? Dressing in drab, shapeless clothes or obsessing less about one's appearance? For some, it could be foregoing make-up? Not washing one's hair everyday? We can all find our 'sackcloth and ashes'.
For Lent, I can offer God my quashed frustrations, my swallowed scream, my sometimes bitten-back sarcasm or cynicism as a sign of my repentance. Patience can be my sackcloth. Kindness and gentleness my ashes.

Happy journeying friends!