Today is the first day of Lent, and I began my Lenten journey yesterday on the balmy last day of February standing in my backyard staring down at my fire pit. Once again, I had let an event sneak up on me and I was trying to decide how I was going to manage the little details I still had left to do in order to pull off a successful Ash Wednesday for my congregation. The first and most pressing item on my list was to make the ashes for the next day’s service. Yes, I know that you should never wait until the day before to do such things. But it would appear, this is who I am. SO, even though I have not successfully created my own ashes in the past, I was determined to do it right this time for my first season of Lent in my congregation.
To start, I had googled “how to make ashes from palm leaves,” and actually found one person’s experience helpful for what I had available to me. I gathered aluminum foil, a box of matches, my bag of dried palms from the previous Palm Sunday, and stood over my fire pit debating on the intelligence of what I was about to do, not having any idea what sort of problem I might be starting.
I put my large pizza pan on top of the bits of un-burnt wood and ashes from previous fires, lined the entire surface by placing my aluminum foil down, spread a nice layer of dried palm branches on top and lit the match while putting the net cover over it all. I won’t lie and say that it was a perfect beginning, but after a few tries to get it to light, off it went. I love fires. And this one had a beauty that I recognized as more than just lovely flame. The palms lit on the end and slow, as if a line of flame was doing its work together, moved from one side of my pit to the other. High flames, too. But very controlled and fairly smooth burning. When the last glow died away, I took off the cover and added another layer of palms and repeated the process until all of the previous year’s palms were done.
The beauty of the process was not lost on me. As those palms burnt, I tried to think back through this year of life – even trying to imagine the many lives that held those branches last year as we entered into Holy Week. A year’s worth of life and trials and joys and sins and struggles – burning before me.
This morning, I began my day by taking those now cool ashes and helping them into a container so that I could make sure that they were ground down as much as possible. As I did so I began picking out all of the stalks and ends that didn’t burn, tossing them onto the ground. And the strangest thing, there were shiny bits mixed in as well. Of course! I didn’t use thick enough aluminum foil and there were some small chunks that broke off into the ash. As I began picking out the foil, as well as the branches, I made a mental note that next year I need to use better foil. And yet, I have to admit that I loved seeing those shiny bits of silver scattered through the dark ash. It was as if God was pointing out the grace that surrounds us even in the midst of the messiness of life and trials and joys and sins and struggles. Thanks be to God for God’s presence with us at all times and in all places.
I am grateful for this new practice that I will look forward to next year, hopefully a little earlier in the season after Epiphany.