"The Ashes of Mount St. Helen's"

Ash Wednesday.B.21 (09)
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

It’s hard to believe the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington State occurred 41 years ago. I was thirteen the year the volcano erupted—and the story captured my attention. It was, it seemed at the time, a picture of ultimate devastation.

Within hours of the eruption in 1980, Spirit Lake, then a popular tourist destination, disappeared under layers of volcanic ash, tree limbs and mud. The blast, which was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic eruption in our country’s history—caused an avalanche that came crashing down onto the lake, displacing the water to such a degree that it produced huge waves that washed across the mountain landscape. The landslide raised the lakebed 200 feet.

And there were ashes. Michael Casey from CBS news writes: “When the volcano’s northern bulge slid away it caused the biggest debris avalanche in recorded history. The landslide was soon followed by a lateral blast that sent hot ash and debris hurdling down the mountain at 300 miles an hour, scorching and toppling everything within reach. It also sent ash and gas 15 miles into the air in just 15 minutes. Over the next nine hours, prevailing winds sent 520 million tons of ash across the state—darkening an area as far away as Spokane, Washington, more than 250 miles to the northeast.

I suspect that when most of us think of ashes—what emerges in our mind are scenes of devastation. Ashes, we reason, are what’s left after an explosion, a fire, a volcano erupting—and the death of someone we love. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ashes and death seem to go hand in hand. Is it any wonder that when those of ancient days chose to mourn, they tore their clothes and placed ashes upon their heads. Ashes are a universal symbol of devastation—a visual expression of grief and loss.

Yet, today, Ash Wednesday, I would like you to look closer. Ashes, aren’t simply a sign of grief and loss—ashes are also a symbol of hope.

When Mount St. Helen’s erupted, by all appearances, it seemed as though one of the region’s most beautiful landmarks had been utterly destroyed, and a lake, that by some accounts was 4,000 years old, was gone forever. But that’s not what happened.

A new lake began to form. It’s not the same, of course—things never are. This lake is much wider and shallower. What’s more, it’s been a boon to aquatic life. That’s not all, the hundreds of square miles of century-old forests destroyed by the eruption have also come back—in many ways richer and surprisingly different than before.

Charlie Crisafulli, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station was among the first scientists to arrive in the weeks following the disaster. Flying towards the blast site, he recalled seeing green forest give way to miles and miles of “gray, strewn with downed trees.” “The initial impression was that nothing or few things would survive.” Crisafulli recalled. “It looked like everything had been destroyed, that all vestiges of life had been snuffed out.”

I imagine, that in 597 BCE, the Israelite people, who saw their city captured, their temple destroyed and their priesthood lost as they were deported to the foreign land of Babylon following their conquest by King Nebuchadnezzar , must have felt something of the devastation beheld by those who witnessed the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. Their world, as they knew it, was gone, erased,—and what remained was a landscape unfamiliar and alien to those who had lived all their lives in Palestine.

Perhaps you and I can relate? So many things have been lost to us throughout this past year. Loved ones, certainly, but also jobs, educational opportunities, important life-events such as weddings, funerals, graduations, birthdays and family celebrations. Gone also, is a sense of security. Loneliness, depression and anxiety have taken up prime real-estate in the psyches of many of us. For scores of people, life during a pandemic has made their world an unwelcome and barren landscape.

And yet. Yet there is hope. Isaiah says to the people of Israel: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Isaiah’s words are a promise of new life. Notice the imperative—the crucial good news of Isaiah is this: New life is indeed ours for the taking—but only if we choose to live into God’s calling to be righteous. New life, at least for people, doesn’t happen simply because we sit back and wait. It happens because we live into our calling to be the people of God.

When Charlie Crisafulli arrived at the blast site, he looked on the ground, and there he saw the first signs of life. Ants scurried about and pocket gophers dug through the ash, burrowing in search of food. Fallen trees provided homes for insects and infused much-needed nutrients into the parched system.

Today trees in the new forests have reached a point where they are creating a canopy. Elk have arrived in record numbers, and the place verily teems with birds. The lake is filled with more aquatic plant growth, more insets and bigger fish. It’s not the same. Yet, it is a far cry from dead. It is a new world.

Of the many forms of life that sprouted after the eruption, among the first were avalanche lilies. Beautiful flowers, trumpet shaped, heralding good news, that death and destruction are not the end of life, but form a new beginning. Let this holy season of Lent be a time, not simply of sorrow, fasting, denial and gloom—allow it to be an opportunity in your life for a new landscape to blossom and grow; one of righteousness and hope. For, after all, that is the meaning of repentance—a turning around, a re-formation of what has gone before. A new world and a living hope made real in the life of Christ and the promise of the resurrection. Remember, it is from the ashes that the lilies grow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.