On Palms and Ashes

On Tuesday morning, I burned last year’s palms to make ashes for the Ash Wednesday service. Or rather, I should say, I recruited a church member to burn them while I stood by with a fire extinguisher, completely unsure of how this would go.

Even though I’ve been presiding at Ash Wednesday services for the better part of a decade, this was the first time I’d ever actually burned the Palm Sunday palms to make the ashes. The last church I served just didn’t do it; we always ordered the packaged ashes from Cokesbury, and I don’t know what happened to the palms. This church had always burned the palms, or had at least in recent memory. (“You can buy packaged ashes?” someone asked, incredulously, when I mentioned it.) But the first year I was here, Ash Wednesday came in my sixth week on the job, and nobody could find the palms. Everyone thought they had been saved, but a thorough search of the church and a call to the former interim minister convinced us that they must have been tossed out in the office renovation they did before I arrived. So I ordered the package of ashes, and nobody seemed to notice.

The next year, I saved the palms. I gathered them up after the service on Palm Sunday, tied them up neatly with a ribbon, set them up on a high shelf in my office, and watched them shrivel and dry up as the months went by. The next February, I knew in the back of my mind that I needed to figure out how to burn them. It was on my list of things to do all the way up to the morning of Ash Wednesday, when I woke up with a horrible cold, a back ache, and a set of missing keys. I remember noticing that I felt appropriately mortal. I let myself off the hook and pulled out the package of ashes left over from the year before. Nobody seemed to notice, and I quietly tossed the dried out palms in the garbage can the next day.

This year, though, was different. Perhaps it was the fact that at the beginning of my third year here I am feeling less pressure to prove that I know how to do it all, or perhaps it was just a well-timed worship team meeting, but I finally asked for help. As the worship team discussed schedules for special services and decided who would put up the Lenten cross, I said, “You know, there’s one more thing…” I told them the whole story, confessed my ignorance at how to burn anything other than a candle, and pleaded for help.

So there I stood Tuesday morning with my designated palm burner, who was perfect for the job. He had brought a roaster (I neglected to ask where he had gotten it, or what one usually roasts in such a thing), and we set it on the sidewalk outside the back door of the church, crumpled up the palms and dropped them in. I’m sure there was a more sacred or holy or reverent way to do it – we gave no spoken blessing, offered no spoken prayer – but it felt right to me, the two of us, standing outside the church, trying to figure out how to do this thing. One minute they were palms, crinkly and dried up, but still recognizable as the palms we’d waved as we shouted hosanna last year, the next minute they were hot, smoky, gray shards of something that could have been anything. The fragility of life, to be sure.

I smelled vaguely of smoke for the rest of the afternoon. Nobody seemed to notice, but on Wednesday night when the congregation gathered in the darkened sanctuary, I was able to tell them that these ashes had been the very palms they’d waved last April, that life indeed does circle back on itself, that these dead and lifeless ashes held the memory of new life waiting to bloom again.

Here’s my meditation from last night, if you’re interested.

That top shelf in my office where the palms sat all year felt awfully empty today.

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