One Ash Wednesday several years ago, I headed to the church kitchen with an armful of very dry palm fronds.
You can buy very nice, pre-moistened ashes from Catholic church supply stores in the United States, and my church did that for several years, until I decided to try the ancient custom of creating my own, using the palm fronds I had saved from the previous Palm Sunday.
I had stashed them away in my office, hoping that the cleaning service wouldn’t throw them away. The cleaning service treated just about everything in my office, including the overflowing wastebasket, as sacred, and so the fronds survived undisturbed for nearly a year.
What I imagined as I headed for the kitchen that morning was a truly holy moment, filled with deep spiritual meaning, the wonder of palms being turned into ashes for the Ash Wednesday service that evening.
What happened was something very different. The palm fronds immediately burst into flames, setting off the church’s smoke detectors and releasing quite an unexpected, pungent odor throughout the church.
After the smoke detector stopped screeching, what was left was the smell, which we couldn’t seem to get rid of, and so all afternoon people came to the church and commented on the strange smell. Our receptionist couldn’t keep from laughing each time she told the story.
My attempts to create holy moments often go like that. What I intend as holy and meaningful often turns out to be comical and forgettable. On the other hand, when I am least expecting an encounter with the holy, it’s then that something truly remarkable and mysterious is likely to happen.
That night, as I was applying the ashes to the foreheads of members as they came forward, I realized that the meaning was not in the kitchen ritual, but in the touch and in saying the words, ‘Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’
I touched the foreheads of at least a couple hundred people that night. I gripped their arms, I looked them in the eyes, and I realized that those people were God’s faithful, entrusted to my sometimes-clumsy care. Now that was a holy moment.
I hope your Ash Wednesday this year is a holy one. You probably won’t have to work as hard as I did to make it that way.
(Photo: I don’t know who that is, but I’m guessing that’s the right way to burn palm fronds.)