Where Ashes Come From

One day before Lent, over twenty years ago, I called the local Catholic priest and asked, “Where do you get your ashes?” I went on to explain to him that I had decided to do an Ash Wednesday service, but I had no idea how to going about doing it. Besides where to locate the ashes I did not know how to apply them, or what I should say. This was not something that was covered in my Protestant seminary. It was, in fact, still not done by many of my colleagues in the United Church of Christ. This ritual, since it is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, was jettisoned by my religious forebears in their reforming zeal.

The priest replied, “The ashes are from burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.” I, of course, had no idea that I was suppose to have saved the dried up old palms for a year so they could be burned to begin the next Lent. My priest friend was very helpful as he offered, “You can have some of ours. We have plenty.”

That is why I found myself at the rectory the day before Ash Wednesday picking up a bag of ashes and a lesson in liturgy.

For years after that I would carefully collect he left-over palms from the church and put them in my closet to dry out in preparation for their next appearance in worship, as ashes. Some other time I will describe the various methods I used to burn the palms so as not to set fire to the church, have them fly away in the smoke, or end up looking like a chimney sweep when I was done. Fortunately, I learned a few years ago that the palm branch supply company also sells palm ashes. Now they come delivered in a neat little envelope.

Ash Wednesday is a very ancient church tradition. Originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes) it is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints, he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” Aelfric then proceeds to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt!

The marking with ashes has been a sign of penitence since well before Jesus’ time. The church has used ashes on the first day of Lent as a reminder of mortality. “Ashes and ashes, and dust to dust,” are the words that are often said while making the cross of ashes on a worshipers’ forehead. Our time on earth is limited so we should not wait to live as we wish.

Personally, I find the ashes to be a profound symbol not just of mortality, but also of our creation from the ground. To me, to feel the ashes connects me to the earth from which we all come. This literal grounding is a good basis to begin to build my spiritual journey of Lent. I hope you can join us for our Ash Wednesday service on February 22.

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