Vail Daily column: Winning and wiping out on life’s slopes |

Vail Daily column: Winning and wiping out on life’s slopes

Jack Van Ens

Is it a stretch to compare Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Christians, with alpine ski racers in the Vail Valley? What do ashen signs of the cross on Christians’ foreheads have to do with skiers hurdling down slopes at blinding speeds?

Like snow in humidity-light Colorado, ashes daubed on foreheads at Ash Wednesday services are wispy and airy. A brisk wind blows away ashes and snowflakes because they’re light.

Downhill ski racers glide over wind-swept snow that has been packed down or iced. Their daring runs elicit euphoric reactions from fans. The beauty of fresh snow, coupled with a challenging course and human aspiration, makes our spirits soar.

Most of us favor cheering downhill racers who symbolize winning in life, rather than kneeling at altars to receive ashen signs of the cross, which stand for life’s final wipeout — death.

Ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday temper our euphoria about winning in life. They remind us of our limits; finitude that binds our days. When a priest or pastor marks the sign of the cross with ashes on worshippers’ foreheads, the cleric repeats: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

None of us gets out of this life alive. Everyone dies. In playwright Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” characters mark their time, going no-where. Idle moments suffocate their lives. It’s only in Act 2 that these dreary prisoners of monotonous routine spy a frail tree. A handful of leaves barely hang on, symbolizing ashen existence. The few leaves left on a dying tree stand for how life is a combo of wins and wipe outs, enjoyable events leveled by what’s dreary.

We’d rather cheer skiers who defy gravity. They race the wind on bumpy terrain. They glide and cut and ski hunched-over, to reduce wind resistance. But wins are often accompanied by wipeouts we’d rather forget.

Because they naturally bunch together, snowflakes don’t remain isolated. They clump together, on slopes, hidden hills in shadows. At breakneck speeds, skiers race downhill. Some are upended. They hit a snowy speed-bump, which sends them catapulting down the mountain, shedding skis. Skiers crash, receiving nasty injuries that knock them out of competition, some so severe they end careers.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians confess they have wiped out, even though they use another vocabulary to express their mistakes. Burnt palm leaves used in worship were blessed at last year’s Palm Sunday services.

Worshipers are reminded of the first Palm Sunday, when crowds initially cheered Jesus. Then fickle fans jeered him. They abandoned him because Jesus didn’t fit the super-hero profile their souls demanded.

Scripture uses picture language to refer to people admitting they’re not perfect. They daub foreheads with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. They ask for a fresh start, a new opportunity, a cleansing divine forgiveness to wash away the grime of not being A-OK.

Snow makes for slick surfaces upon which skiers race. But snowflakes also set traps for racers to fall. At the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller hooked a gate with his left arm. Skiing at a terrific speed, he spun around and landed backwards with savage thuds. Probably hitting a ski edge on his way down, Miller severed his hamstring tendon, causing a gruesome gash.

This ugly injury provoked a too-cutesy Denver Post front-page headline. Featured was a picture of Miller spiraling out-of-control with the caption: “This Doesn’t Bode Well.” Another play on words describing his crash seems inappropriate, too: “Here’s No Miller Time!”

If it’s not a gate that causes skiers to fall, then clumped snow or black ice sets up wipe outs. Moisture-laden snow ices up and forms a gritty surface. It’s called corn snow.

Ashes drenched by water get gritty, too.

Anne Lamott in an essay, “Ashes,” describes the sensation she felt after distributing the ashes of her best friend Pammy past the Golden Gate Bridge. Lamott discovered that “human ashes are the grittiest of elements, like not very good landscaping pebbles. As if they’re made of bones or something.”

How did Lamott know this macabre fact? She ate some of the ashes. “They are impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers, your sweater. I licked my friend’s ashes off my hand, to taste them, to taste her, to taste what was left after all that was clean and alive had been consumed and burned away,” Lamott writes. “They tasted metallic, and they blew every which way. We tried to strew them off the side of the boat romantically, with seals barking from under the rocks ashore, under a true-blue sky, but they would not cooperate. They rarely will.”

Snow and ashes are God’s reminders of life’s ups and downs — the wins and wipeouts. We encounter these inescapable realities on ski slopes and in Ash Wednesday services.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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