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Burning Palms

Burning palms on an Ash Wednesday Youth release day

Burning palms on an Ash Wednesday Youth release day. Photo (c) 2012, Elizabeth Steeves.

Tomorrow is likely the last day for people to bring the palm crosses and fronds, blessed last year at Palm Sunday, back to church. They’ll be burned this week to make the ashes that we’ll use on Ash Wednesday, imposed on our forehead in the sign of the cross, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we will return.

As you can see in the photo, I like to use a torch to help me burn the palms: they never really burn that well, and it lets me keep flame on them as they start to go out–so that they can burn up completely before I break out the mortar & pestle.

I was delighted to come across a prayer yesterday, shared by the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission on their Facebook page, composed by Jennifer Phillips, for the burning of the palms.

Blessed God, whose child, Jesus, walked the path of suffering and death
in order to open to us the gates of everlasting life:
with the burning of these palms,
make us mindful that all worldly triumph turns to dust,
and all earthly joy is mingled with sorrow,
yet through Christ, even at the grave we make our song
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

I like this moment (yes, better when I don’t summon the kindly neighbourhood firefighters as I did a couple of years ago–pesky smoke alarms inside open doors). I like watching the flames dance as the palms writhe and curl and blacken before their edges turn white and they cease to burn. I like being part of this moment, and have really enjoyed sharing it with  a group of young people the last couple of years. I like the process of watching the large pile of palms shrink to embers, before being crumbled into a still smaller pile of ash. I like this moment of preparation that, as much as Ash Wednesday, helps me prepare to keep a holy Lent.

Will you burn palms this year? What special memories do you have of helping with their burning? How do you prepare for Lent?

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I’m a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.

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5 Responses to Burning Palms

  1. I burn the palms in a old (metal!) coffee can which has had holes punched around the bottom. The palms go up like a torch. Once it cools, the can provides a convenient way to hold them before sifting.

  2. I have a photo (that I LOVE!) from when I was an intern at St. Georges on-the-Hill in Etobicoke.  It’s a very wintery day, and we were freezing, but out in an old metal (school house style) garbage can, we set the fire.  We burned crosses from the previous year, but we had also saved palm fronds that were waved around during the procession on Palm Sunday.  They must have been extremely dry because the flames were as tall as I am!  You know, the connection from year to year is why I always burn new ashes.  To me, the palm leaves that represent the hopes and joys of the Holy Week from the previous year and they become the ashes of remembrance and repentance from the places during that year where we didn’t live up to being the people God calls us to be.  I love that each year (each day… each minute!) we have the opportunity to try again.  Thanks for reminding me of this with your reflection!  P.S.  Love the prayer and think I may use that on Tuesday!

  3. Thanks for the prayer. Will use it  tonight at our Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. Here’s a topic. Since generally speaking very few of our people make it out to Ash Wednesday (and I have served in several churches and have been a member of many) does anyone consider  the use of ashes on the first Sunday of Lent? While I know this idea offends our sense of good liturgy, after  20 years of ministry I am more inclined to move things to Sundays  since we still (thank God) get reasonable turnouts. So as much as I would prefer they  come  tomorrow, we’ll have 5 times as many at our  pancake supper and  so most people will never experience the powerful symbolism  of what ashes on  our foreheads can convey. I also think of this for  feet/hand washing on  Maundy Thursday. Again good, even great turnouts Palm Sunday  and Easter, very few on the  Thursday and so they miss that powerful symbol also.

  4. Matthew Griffin

    I think you’re asking a really important question, Joe. I also think it’s one that doesn’t have clear answers.

    I can tell you that, in a former parish, after the service on Lent I, we’d offer the imposition for those who’d been unable to be at an Ash Wednesday service. It was a small crowd for whom that was important, but it was significant in offering them a way to mark the beginning of Lent–even a couple of days late.

  5. Pingback: Smudged Yet Speaking Signs | The Community

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