One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

burning ash wednesday ashes

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.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

13 Responses to One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

  1. Don Wagner March 5, 2014 at 6:56 am #

    What a great story, Doug. Thanks for sharing it.


  2. Jeff Edwards March 5, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    Doug my brother, your humility has always been what makes you such a good pastor. You are open to experiencing His hand on you, while so willing to share your attempt to make His sacred a reality. In your frailty and yet opennes you model for the reast of us the mystery of He who we all love. Thanks for such a wonderful story and reminding me of how surprising our Lord can be in our attepts to get it right with God. Blessings and love on you today, my good brother. You will be in my prayers today.

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      Thanks for those words, Jeff. I’m mostly trying to be honest about my spiritual life which I now realize sounds like humility. The Wheaton church, as you know, gave me many opportunities to be human, and I seized every single one of them.

  3. John Rubino March 5, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks Doug. It is comforting to hear those words. Many Blessings!!!

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Missed applying ashes to your forehead this year, John.

  4. sandy steffen March 5, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Blessings to you & Susan on this Holy Day! Pancakes tonight at church. Our friends Colin & Lynn are visiting today from the frozen North. We’re going to Key West with them for the weekend to celebrate Lynns 70th B-Day (shhh, it’s a surprise). ( :

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Not a word from me!

  5. Mary Ellen March 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    That is a great story. Sounds like something I would do. Mary Ellen

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

      Why I didn’t burn them outdoors I’m not sure. Never even occurred to me.

  6. Patty March 5, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    Hi Doug,
    Moments like you experienced are such wonderful connections with the Divine. We used the prayers written by members of the congregation from the previous year to make the ashes which is another meaningful tradition.
    Blessings to you and the family.

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      And to you and yours, Patty.

  7. Agnes Kenton March 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    Your always seem to know how to help us realize that those God’s moments are not of our own making. Thanks.

    • Doug March 7, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Hi, Agnes. I give thanks that I was able to share more than the usual number with you – and occasionally with members of your family.

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