Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

If you’re not from the Ash Wednesday world, you might not know this little piece […]

Bryan J. / 2.18.15

If you’re not from the Ash Wednesday world, you might not know this little piece of trivia surrounding the holiday: the Ashes that get used to make the little cruciform smudge on one’s forehead don’t just come from a fireplace. Tradition is that our ashes come from the incinerated leftovers of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. Many (most?) churches order their ashes from a supplier, which is understandable because keeping enough dead plant leaves on hand for hundreds of people can take up a lot of closet space. But with our smaller gathering celebrating our first Palm Sunday in 2014, I was able to keep our leftover palm fronds around for the other 325 non-Lenten days. With a few tips from my bishop, I spent the early hours last night creating the implements we’ll use to remind us of our mortality that evening.


This is not me.

Have you ever burned palm fronds before? I had not seen it done before. Would they smoke like leaves? Would they require lots of initial kindling like a campfire log? I took one palm frond out just to be safe and tested burning it in the kitchen sink just to be sure, which seems silly in hindsight because fires are generally fueled by dried out ex-plants. My less-than-sanctified rig for burning the rest of the dried palms included my chimney charcoal starter and a round pizza-shaped metal pan covered in aluminum foil to catch the falling embers.Folding and stuffing the crackling dried fronts into the charcoal starter, I headed outside into the snow with rig and lighter in tow.

This is where it gets interesting: the transition from palm frond to ash took less than thirty seconds. For about ten of those seconds, flames leaped up from my charcoal lighter, with two or three foot of fire warming the night. And as the flames died down, you could watch the fronds collapse and wither in on themselves, shrinking down to burnt embers from the heat. Even those embers were soon extinguished by the winter cold. What was left from the initial three-foot long sleeve that had taken up an 11 month residence in the corner of the living room was maybe two tablespoons of ash. And after a quick trip through the coffee grinder, there was less than a tablespoon of ash left for smudging. Now, in a little glass jar on the kitchen table, sit the remnants of Palm Sunday 2014, the ashen leftovers of our former instruments of praise.


It’s helpful to link Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday like this. Palm Sunday might also be called “Irony Sunday,” because the same crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem would be calling for his crucifixion five days later. Ash Wednesday ash on our brow isn’t just a reminder of death and sin- it’s a reminder of Holy Week’s disingenuous praise. On day one of Lent, the season calls into question the Christian’s devotion and piety, taking the memory of last year’s joyous celebration and quite literally rubbing it in our faces. It is a tangible metaphor of the weakness of our spirituality: one moment a blaze of glory, the next without trace of burning ember.

Burning the Palm Sunday leftovers helped me to add to an ever-growing list of Lenten themes. Praise is not enough to keep us warm. Our devotion does not pass through the fire unrefined- it’s just as liable to being burnt away as our sin. Apart from God’s grace my faith is fickle- I too would have welcomed Jesus and called for his crucifixion. Whatever questions Lent raises about religious discipline, the nature of faith, the problem of evil, the ashes confirm that the answer isn’t going to be found within me.

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5 responses to “Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection”

  1. Joe Nooft says:

    Enjoyed reading this Bryan! Very informative and helpful for me!

  2. Brent Boyd says:

    Great thoughts. Thank you.

  3. Charles holbrook says:

    What does a church burn if they don’t have the palm leaves from the previous year?

    • Bryan J. says:

      Hi Charles! Honestly, lots of folks order ashes from their church supply store, but normally, any ash would work for Ash Wednesday. You could even use campfire ash if you like. It may require putting the ashes in a blender to powder-ize them. Speaking from personal experience, I wouldn’t use your wife’s magic bullet unless she likes that burnt plant flavor. It may also require a bit of oil (like olive oil) to help the ash stick to the forehead.

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