Palms to ashes, crush 'em to dust

(Photo from the author of Staying Awake)

For three years now, I've taken it upon myself to be "The Burner of the Palms" for Ash Wednesday. Tradition holds that the ashes for Ash Wednesday be the ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday. Now, it doesn't matter that I end up each year making enough ashes to smear crosses on half of Kirksville--I like to make them every year simply because I like keeping with the ancient tradition. It doesn't matter that you can actually buy palm ashes from religious supply houses--I just like the notion of our parish getting smeared with "our" ashes.

I took on this ministry of sorts to make our late "queen of the Altar Guild's" wish come true. We had been using "store-bought ashes" until three years ago, and it sort of galled her. She would wrinkle up her nose at the little package of store-bought ashes and grunt, "These are not very good ashes. We really should be making our own." (Now, I don't really know what qualifies as "not very good ashes," but I took her at her word.) So the next Palm Sunday, I grabbed all the leftover palms and put them out in my garage.

The first year was kind of a comedy of errors. I didn't let them dry out long enough, and tried to burn them late that summer, experimenting with a few in a coffee can. After throwing lighter fluid and, eventually motor oil, I got them burned, but they didn't smell like anything anyone would want on their forehead. So I let them dry out a few more months and tried again. This time I got the bright idea to put them on the gas grill and let them start to smoke a little before lighting them. Success! The only problem was I had the fire under them too hot, and burned a hole in the cheap roasting pan, and lost about half the ashes. It was a very embarrassing display for someone who loves fire and "burning stuff" as much as I do!

The second year, however, I was ready. I knew enough to let the palms "smoke" on the higher rack in the gas grill. I suddenly appeared to be a "professional palm burner." This year went without a hitch.

This year, I pondered the therapeutic nature of my annual duty. Burning the palms carries a lot of positive symbolism for me. The palms slated for burning represent a year's worth of things in my life that were "not quite right." They are the old things, the dried out things, the dessicated things, the things I'd like to have a do-over. They are the things worth repenting, the things worth burying, the things worth dispersing. It's good to watch them burn.

After they are burned, the next step is to pulverize them to dust. I usually use something like the bottom of an old coffee cup to grind them down. It feels renewing, somehow, to take those burned leaves and crush them to a fine powder. I put my weight into my arm and put a little "oomph" to it. I think about the Second Law of Thermodynamics--that everything, over time, becomes more random. The things that mattered last year and got in my way, or hampered my faith journey in some way are becoming more random, more unrecognizable. Again, there's a sense of renewal with that, a feeling that we really can start over, if we so choose.

I remember the first year "my" ashes were used. Lots of people commented on how nice and black they were. The "store bought" ones of previous years were a little on the gray side. I got an odd satisfaction about that--that my work, even in a somber moment such as Ash Wednesday, made others feel that they got the "real deal", the full experience of the tradition.

But for me, burning and pulverizing the ashes gives me a fuller sense of what it means for our sins to be forgiven, for God to no longer remember them, for them to be flung as far as east is from west. I think about how everyone walks out of the service on Ash Wednesday with the "same dirt" on them. My sins are not so unique. They're the same as everyone else's. We bear the corporate burden of each other's sins. We're not so much our brother's keeper as we are our brother's sibling. All our sins are made up of the same DNA, so to speak.

What makes the Ash Wednesday service unique is it's the one time we go forward twice--the first time to accept our common sins, and the second time to receive a common meal. There's a tendency, I think, to think of the "sins" part, the "From dust you came and to dust you will return" part as a solo adventure, but in reality, it's just as common and corporate as the meal.

Stay tuned--I'll blog about the meal next.