Ashes to Ashes

I freely admit to being a Lent junkie.  

Lent is the season of the liturgical church year which follows Epiphany, and precedes Holy Week and Easter Sunday (it actually includes Holy Week).  It’s a time of reflection, on the supreme gift of Jesus Christ in his suffering and death, and on our great need for that suffering, as well as our causative role in that suffering.  It’s a season that provides us the theological and liturgical breathing space to evaluate ourselves, and to pray for the Holy Spirit’s work in continuing the difficult and painful process of sanctification in our redeemed lives.
Today begins the season of Lent.  Ash Wednesday is the first day, and there are a total of 40 days in Lent – excluding Sundays (because Sundays are always a celebration, liturgically, of Easter).  Many people are more aware of the popular Mardis Gras, French for ‘Fat Tuesday’, so called because Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten fasting season, and so people really whooped it up on the Tuesday beforehand.  
The tradition of Ash Wednesday is associated most closely with the Imposition of Ashes.  Catholics (and some Lutherans) begin the observance of Lent with a visible, cross-shaped smudge of ash on their foreheads.  It is a symbolic reminder that we are destined for physical death, and therefore ought to soberly consider our lives in preparation and anticipation of that time – since we rarely know when it will arrive.  There are echoes of the Old Testament practice of covering oneself in sackcloth (course, uncomfortable cloth, sorta like burlap) and ashes as a sign of mourning or great loss.  
Traditionally, the ashes are the burned palm branches saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.  Some churches mark the festive palm Sunday with the waving of palm branches, to remind them of how the joyous Jerusalem crowds greeted Jesus on his final Passover arrival in the city.  A little water or oil can be mixed with the ashes as a fixative, so they stay better on the skin.  Traditionally, the sign of the cross made with the ash mixture is left on all day, and washed off after sundown.  
So I made ash today – twice.  The first time was for the preschool kids that I do chapel for each Wednesday morning.  We went outside and I tried to burn some dried palm branches from last year into ash, which was moderately successful.  I like to mix the ash with a more fragrant oil, and this year I used Frankincense and Myrrh oil.  It is reminiscent of the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus when they arrived to worship him, and there is a light, sweet scent.  Not all of the preschoolers were so sure of it, but most let me put the ashes on their foreheads.  
Since the burning wasn’t very even, and the resulting ash was pretty chunky, I discarded what was left, and went home and more carefully burned the remaining palm branches to ash.  It doesn’t really take much ash, since only a small amount is placed on each forehead.  If you burn two palm branches (smaller, not huge ones!) you’ll have TONS-o-ash.  A few drops of oil to mix it into a paste, and you’re good to go.  I like the symbolism redolent throughout the process, and the idea of being tied in to a church tradition in yet another manner.  Tonight, the ashes will be applied with the reminder to each recipient to Remember o man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.   
A good thing for all of us to keep in mind, on Ash Wednesday, in Lent, and always.

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