There was once a man who had only one son and no daughters, for the boy’s mother had died in childbirth. He loved his boy deeply and they shared a small home together. One day, while the man was out of town selling his wares, the village where they lived was attacked by marauders. In the chaos, the homes were burned down and many people killed, but the boy was among a group that was taken away into slavery.
When the man returned that evening, he was heartbroken to see his village destroyed. He was even more heartbroken when he found a charred body that was the exact size of his son. Convinced that these were the remains of his boy, he had the body cremated and he kept the ashes in a jar that he carried with him wherever he went. Years later, when the village had been rebuilt, the man still held on to the jar of ashes and never let go of them save at night when he placed them beside his bed.
One day, about ten years later, the boy found an opening and he fled his captors and ran back home. When he approached the village where he had spent his childhood, it looked completely different. When he reached the location of his old home, that looked different too. The boy knocked on the door and there came a gruff reply:
“Who is it?”
The boy instantly recognized the voice. It was ten years older and a thousand years sadder but it was the voice of his father.
“It is me,” the boy replied, “Your son! I have fled my captors and come home!”
The man on the other side of the door did not recognize the boy’s voice because it had deepened with age. The man thought this was a teenager from the village who had come to play a cruel trick on him. So, clutching tightly to his jar of ashes, he called back: “Leave! You are mistaken! My son is right here with me!”
The boy called back, “Father it is me! Please open the door!”
But, clutching the jar of ashes, even tighter, the man angrily threatened the boy. The boy plead with the man for an hour before giving up. In the end, he thought he must have been mistaken. Perhaps this wasn’t his childhood village after all. He must have got turned around somehow and here he was pestering some sad old stranger. So the boy left in search of his village and his father. As for the man, he continued to carry that jar of ashes with him wherever he went, never letting go of them, save at night when he placed them beside his bed.
This beautiful Buddhist parable, is meant to illustrate how we must learn to let go of error before we can embrace truth. But this parable takes on a special significance to disciples walking in the way of Jesus on Ash Wednesday. Today is a special day of penitence in the church calendar that marks the beginning of the 40 day period leading up to Easter called “lent.” The season of lent is all about letting go of the things that hinder us from receiving Christ. When I read this parable today, I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.” Also, the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To all who grieve in Zion, He will bestow on them a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” As we prepare our hearts and minds during this season of lent, we are called to let go of the things to which we so desperately cling so that we can receive the gift of Grace that God offers: The very presence of Christ. What are the ashes to which you cling? What hurt and despair do you carry around with you? What secret sin sits in a jar by your bed at night?
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…