How To Make Ashes   Leave a comment

As I have discussed in a past post, many Christians save the palm fronds they receive at church on Palm Sunday and put them on a home altar or near a cross, icon or picture. They bring the palms back to church the Sunday before Lent begins, and the palms are burned to create the ashes used on Ash Wednesday.

A few weeks ago I asked the staff of Grace Cathedral if I might observe the burning of these palms. I had a hunch that they would be burned with some sense of ritual, and there is little I love more than ritual. Rev. Canon Mark Stanger invited me to take part; he is the Cathedral’s Canon Precentor—our resident liturgy expert. Together with John, one of the vergers, we met in the vestry early on Monday afternoon. We gathered the palms, some of the chrism—blessed oil from the sacristy, and a fire pit usually used for the great Paschal fire at the Easter Vigil, and headed out to the least-windy corner of the plaza.

Once we had filled the pit with palms and some cotton balls soaked in the oil, and a few other staff members had joined us, Canon Stanger opened our ceremony in prayer. He had asked me to read Psalm 51 once the fire was lit. As the flames consumed the fronds, I read this psalm of penitence and reconciliation:

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Canon Stanger closed us with another prayer, and then we waited for the flames to die out—the oil-soaked cotton kept the embers lit for quite a while. A man passing by came over to ask what was happening. He turned out to be a Muslim—one who blogs about Islam and Labyrinths. Canon Stanger compared Lent to Ramadan and the man also made a connection to
Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic feast celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. I am delighted to often find that Religion is a small world.

By the time the fire was out, only John, Canon Stanger and I were left. We carefully poured the contents of the pit into a large mortar, which John handed me with its pestle. We headed back to the sacristy where we ground the ashes into a fine powder and poured them into the small boxes to be used by the priests on Wednesday.

It was wonderful to be part of this little ritual in preparation of a larger ritual to come. I found it very comforting to see and be part of this process—to see palms that had been blessed be turned into ashes which will be blessed again. The palms waved in celebration of Jesus’ kingship a year ago will now have another purpose: to remind us of our mortality.

Among the burned was a palm cross which Canon Stanger had received from the home of a well-loved recently-deceased congregation member. What decorated his home in his final year will now be part of the ashes reminding his friends that “you are dust; to dust you shall return.”

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