In the church I grew up in, the ashes used for Ash Wednesday came from the palms of Palm Sunday. It was a real labor of love on the part of the altar guild. You wouldn’t think that ashes are difficult to make, but actually it’s an involved process. You don’t get a lot of ashes from palms. It’s a hassle. That’s why most churches today order their ashes from a church supply company. But you will still find many churches that take the time and hassle to make ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday. Why?
First, we need to understand the significance of ashes in the Bible. Ashes are a sign of mourning, repentance, and cleansing in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, when there is something terrible and traumatic that happens (rape, death of a child, national disaster, etc), a person or community would place ashes on their heads or sit in a pile of ashes as a visual display of their grief. In fact, some historians argue that this is the origin of the custom of wearing black clothing for mourning in our culture.
But ashes also signify repentance. When the people of God understood their sin and desired to make a radical break from their sin, they would put on sackcloth and ashes. In fact, sackcloth and ashes were a sign of repentance even for those who weren’t Israelite. The inhabitants of Nineveh famously covered themselves (and their animals!) in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance following Jonah’s call to repent (Jonah 3).
Connected to this practice of repentance, ashes symbolize cleansing from sin. In Numbers 19, God commands that the ashes of a spotless heifer be collected and used for the purification and cleansing of God’s people. Ashes are not only a sign of our repentance, but an assurance that when we repent God’s forgiveness and mercy is waiting to embrace us.
The people of God put on ashes when they run out of words to convey all that they feel and know to be true. The unfathomable mystery of grief after horrific trauma. The realization of the depths of our sin. And the absolute incomprehensibility of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
So what does all of this have to do with Palm Sunday? Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, but the beginning of what we are preparing for in Lent: the Passion of Jesus—his suffering, death, & resurrection. The ashes are a mark that remind us of the whole story, and not the half-story we like to tell ourselves. A mark that reminds us we are heading towards the Passion of Jesus. A mark that reminds us that much of our praise of God is proven false by the action and inaction of our lives. A mark that reminds us to repent. Not just today, but also when our fickle hearts turn from the passionate praise of palms to the curses and condemnation of crosses. A mark that reminds us that God’s forgiveness and mercy is waiting to embrace us whenever we repent.
Ash Wednesday is like a speed bump. It jolts us out of our rush and hurry. It slows us down so that we can fully take in the significance of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. It slows us down as we approach the central story of our faith, beginning on Palm Sunday.
Last Sunday, a couple of our faithful altar guild members were checking in with me about details for some upcoming special services. As we discussed Ash Wednesday, one of them said to me, “We have the ashes for Ash Wednesday.” And then with a look of knowing, she said to me, “…and they are from the palms from last year.”