Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

Devotion March 6, 2019

Today is Ash Wednesday - aptly named because the day has everything to do with ashes…. actual ashes.  The ashes come from the palm branches that are used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration which makes storing the palm branches an issue cause you have to remember where you put them so that you can find them when Ash Wednesday rolls around almost a year later. More than one year the palm branches have been misplaced (I say misplaced because the branches do seem to turn up sometime during the year - but after the needed date of Ash Wednesday!).  After a huge panic some 15 years ago regarding Ash Wednesday because the palm branches couldn’t be located I have kept in my house a couple of vases which contain palm branches.  They are good decoration and they are my ‘back ups’ should the need arise.  
I realize you can buy ashes but there just isn’t something right about that…. they aren’t ‘our’ ashes; there isn’t quite the same meaning as knowing that those you are close to in your congregation actually held and waved these palm branches during the worship service the previous year…. but if the need is there for some quick ashes their is a recourse of pre-made ashes!
I keep thinking that maybe what I should do is go ahead and burn the palm branches during Holy Week and then store just the ashes - but I am afraid the same thing would happen.  I’d get all organized and have the ashes already prepared and I wouldn’t need to worry about where the palm branches were…. but then I think that I would just probably forget where I had so purposefully put the ashes so I would still end up in a panic and there is also that tradition thing in me that just needs to burn the ashes the day before Ash Wednesday cause that is how I have always done it and that is how most of my minister friends do it - and you know how important it is to do something like it has always been done…….
The actual burning of the palm branches, then, is always an adventure.  Every year there seems to be an issue that has to be resolved.  There actually was one year that I could not get them to burn at all so I had to use some magic get the fire going fluid and then I wondered if I had crossed some great theological barrier that would cause my parishioners to not really be properly ashed….
This year it all went pretty well.  I went to Dollar Tree and bought the aluminum pan like I always use (I actually have a minister friend who bought one of those old domed charcoal grills he keeps in the corner of his garage for just this use!).  I placed the container and my branches on my sidewalk, broke up the branches into mostly leaves and set it on fire!  And it burned!  And I worried as I always do that someone is going to call the fire department or the police or something “That lady is doing something weird on her sidewalk…..”.  The branches burned well and after a short period of time  I had a pan full of palm branch ash!  
Now came the only issue I had with my ash burning this year - and if I only have one issue I’m pretty excited.  I didn’t want to go to the next step of Ash Wednesday Ash preparation just then because I had good clothes on and I needed to go a few places and see people and I didn’t want to look like I had just come from the ash heap so I put the container of ashes on my porch - as I walked away I looked back and noticed that the wind was trying its best to blow all my newly burnt ashes away… my special last year’s palm branch ashes were soon to be ashes in the wind!  After a quick response I rescued my ash container and saved the ashes  Whew!
The next step is to then get my special container (It has a fancy religious name that I can never remember) that is designed especially for the Ash Wednesday service ashes (It is a very pretty ceramic cup with a lid that someone gave me years ago).  I put on my plastic gloves, covered myself in my washable black coat - because I always end up with ashes all over me - and then attempt to get the ashes into the special container.  It is much harder than you think because ashes don’t really pour and even if I tried I’m sure there would be more ashes around me than in my special ash container!  So very carefully and slowly with my plastic disposable spoon the ashes were transferred into their special container and ready to be imposed onto foreheads…..
Sometimes we wonder about what God thinks about these rituals and ceremonies we go through.  But I think God is quite pleased that we take the time to come out to the church to go through a service that is designed to make us a little sad as we consider our sin and the cost of our sin.  I think God is pleased that we are willing to begin a time of reflection and thought and consideration of who we are as compared to who God is.   I think God is glad any time we gather together to honor him and strive to bring our relationship closer with our God and with one another.
Ash Wednesday seems like a strange time; like a strange ritual; but it is truly an opportunity to remember the God who gave us his son so that we can live eternally with him regardless of how unworthy we are...