On Ash Wednesday, we must start with ashes.
Ecclesiastes 3:20 speaks to this, when the author says of man and beast alike, “Both go the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return”. Our foreheads are marked with ashes, to humble our hearts and remind us that life passes away. These ashes are a symbol of penance, made sacramental by the blessing of the Church and they help us to develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
Today, my thoughts go to my father, Billy Shelton, whose earthy body “returned to dust” three years ago. A quiet godly man, I am certain he is with the Lord. A two time war veteran, perhaps his most impactful experience of ashes occurred seventy years ago. John Hershey, in his book, Hiroshima states, “On this day in 1945, at 8:16 a.m. Japanese time, an American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, drops the world's first atom bomb, over the city of Hiroshima. Approximately 80,000 people are killed as a direct result of the blast, and another 35,000 are injured. At least another 60,000 would be dead by the end of the year from the effects of the fallout. There were 90,000 buildings in Hiroshima before the bomb was dropped; only 28,000 remained after the bombing. Of the city's 200 doctors before the explosion; only 20 were left alive or capable of working. There were 1,780 nurses before—only 150 remained who were able to tend to the sick and dying.”
Ashes were everywhere.
My father was nineteen years old on that date. He was a U.S. Navy officer aboard the troop ship USS Menefee APA-202, as it pulled into the harbor a short time after the bomb was dropped. What he saw and experienced was indescribable. So much so, that he could not bring himself to talk about it for fifty years. Dad and I had never been that close. I always had a strong respect for him. The father / son bond was something that I had always desired. He kept his emotions “closely within his chest”.
I researched and purchased a replica of his troop ship and gave it to him on his 70th birthday. As I looked for his reaction, his smile was broad and knowing.
A spark was kindled in his heart. His son wanted to know what was going on in his heart. He spoke quietly, and I listened.
He shared his hidden pain, the carnage that he witnessed. He felt a strong sense of “ownership” of the suffering that he witnessed. From that evening on, a bond was created, forgiveness was accepted- I believe, between Bill and his Lord.
That “spark of divine light within each of us” connected. A small fire was started between us, one that was life- giving. For the rest of his life on this earth, the affection that I sought from dad was there. We were reconciled.