Holy Ordinary Ashes

If you look back through my sermons (link), especially my Maundy Thursday ones, you’d find a repeating theme that Jesus took ordinary things and made them holy.  We can see this in baptism where water is turned into our sacramental entrance to God’s family, in communion when bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood to sustain us, in God’s choosing us to carry the truth of God’s love to the world. 

This evening I was thinking about how Ash Wednesday, especially as we prepare, might be the time in the Church calendar where we most live the ordinary things turned holy.

It all starts a few weeks before Lent when I invite those who can still find (or if you’re more organized than me, just have) their palms from Palm Sunday to bring them back.  A small pile collects near the Church office. 

Then on Shrove Tuesday, I collect any interested people.  Although my church folds our palms into cross, I always ask if people want to come burn the palms.  Out in the parking lot, I crumple a few pieces of old bulletins in the bottom of the metal bowl I bought my first year here at the Good Sam down the road.  The small group gathers around as I light the matches from the sacristy and touch it to the paper.  And then people: parishioners, those who mostly turned up for the pancakes, Scouts, parents, teens, the eager, and the reticent put the palms into the flame.  I occasionally remind people to keep feeding (as it does burn out and did tonight), and ask people to be mindful that the palms burn into the bowl.  And then, it’s over.  The last palm has been burned; the remaining embers left flickering. 

As the others leave, the fun over, I take the oven mitt I bring from home and move the bowl more deeply into the snow (thankfully we live in Alberta so there’s a lot of potential fire stopper around—and never mix ash and water).  I usually make a few rounds of the church—checking in with the pancake supper clean-up and checking on the ashes as they cool.  Then I gingerly double check the temperature of the bowl before I carry them inside.  I like to take mine to the wide empty counter in the Sacristy where I smash them a bit  with a rock, this year one I picked up on my evening dog walk.  I make sure they are all small smear-able pieces, pull out any thing that didn’t quite char completely.

Truthfully, I usually remember to bring the olive oil early on Ash Wednesday.  We only use a few drops a year, so I just snag the one from my kitchen.  I mix a few drops in (trying to aim for dryer as I can’t really start over).  Not everyone does this but it’s my preference as I find it makes the ashes smear just a little better.  Then I divide the ashes into two small clear bowls.  One I bought at the same time I bought the metal bowl.  The other was lurking in the very back of a kitchen cabinet.

And that’s my story behind the Ashes of Ash Wednesday.  A second hand metal bowl.  Two mismatched clear bowls.  A rock from the side of a sidewalk.  Palms people opt not to keep.  Olive oil from my kitchen.  Tomorrow they become a reminder of our mortality, tomorrow they help us begin Lent, prepare for Easter.  The ordinary, in this case almost the obscenely ordinary, turned into vehicles for the Holy.

The God whom I love delights in this sort of Divine joke.

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An Anglican/Episcopal priest, bibliophile, dog owner, and Montanan

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