Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash
The tradition of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday in the shape of a cross on the forehead is a tradition that dates to the 11th century church. They are a visible reminder that the wages of our sin is death, but by Jesus’ death on the cross, we have life. This worship practice kicks off the season of Lent, during which the church focuses on the suffering of Jesus for us.
I don’t remember ever having ashes on Ash Wednesday at the church my family went to when I was growing up. We were always members of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod congregation, and in the 1960s, the practice of receiving ashes on your forehead was a Roman Catholic tradition, and therefore one to stay away from.
I am not certain, but I believe the first time I experienced ashes on Ash Wednesday was in 1997 at our church in Florida. That was a time of restoring some ancient traditions in worship. The first time I did it, no one had saved any palms from the previous Palm Sunday. But surrounded by palm trees and palmettos, it was easy to gather up fronds to burn into ashes.
The first time around, I used a pan from the kitchen and set a bunch on fire. I had to throw out the ruined pan I used and the kitchen smelled horrible for a few days, but I had some ashes to use. I began saving the extra palm crosses from Palm Sunday that year. The trick is to remember where you have them stored away to use a year later.
That first year, someone asked me, “Whose ashes are those?” I would always explain where the ashes actually came from as well as their significance.
A colleague suggested baking the palm leaves to dry them out before burning them. Great idea, except the kitchen still smelled bad for a few days. This time, I took them outside to burn on some aluminum foil. This worked much better.
One year, I ordered some online. The ashes were very fine, much finer than I had ever been able to grind them up. This worked well, but I still felt like homemade were better.
The next year, I found the palm crosses, dried them thoroughly, burned them nicely, ground them up into a very fine ash. Best batch ever. Biggest batch ever. A little bit goes a long way. So I saved the ashes in a little jar I kept on my bookshelf. They lasted for years.
So when someone asked, “Where do the Ash Wednesday ashes come from?” I only had to point to the jar and say, “Right there.” But then I would explain the tradition and the process.
After retiring last summer, I didn’t think much about Ash Wednesday ashes until last week, when the church office manager called and asked, “Where did you get ashes? And do you know where the leftover palms are?”
Well, I explained, “if you can find the palm crosses from last year, you’ll need to bake them, burn them, and grind them up. Or you can just order some on Amazon.”
“I think we’ll order some this year.”