Ash Wednesday is upon us. This day is the annual kick-off to the season of Lent, the 40 days that lead us to Easter. This day for many people signifies a time where we ponder our humanity, our mortality, and our state of imperfection. Sometimes, people have the tradition of giving up a favorite food or drink through this season as a way to participate in this season of prayer.
This year, as I prepared for Ash Wednesday service, I had the opportunity to gather the old dried palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration and learn the process of burning them down to ashes.
I stuffed the palms into a metal pitcher, drizzled them with olive oil and lit the contents. For about ten minutes the palms burnt and created a huge cloud of smoke. At one point the smoke curled into a huge pillar that swirled into the blue sky above. The flames slowly died down and the ashes of the palms remained. The next step was to pour the ashes onto a plate and mash them with the back of a spoon until they were fine and powdery.
What remained of the large pile of palm branches was small in contrast to their original form. The fire had changed their mass. The smoke had shifted their purpose. What had once been a symbol of celebration and praise was now one of prayer and reflection.
While I know palm branches don’t have a voice in this process, I wondered what, if they could speak, they would say about the whole experience?
As they were stuffed into the metal can, they tried popping out of the container. As they burned, the ashes tried to fly out of the fire, but foil was laid over top to contain them. They we mashed and pressed into fine powder, that if I wasn’t careful in containing – would have blown away in the wind. There is and was a sense of resistance I noticed in the palms that I think is quite true for people as well.
In our reaction to the actions of life and the challenges we face, we struggle – we dodge – we wrestle. This is not meant to be an accusation, for I know these all are things I do too. Fight or flight is a natural human reaction to stimuli. We fight. We fly. We are, I suppose, quite like the palm branches that I observed becoming ashes.
There is a phrase that I share with people when I place ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
We are dust – this is true. But we are much loved, much cared for dust. We may be in the midst of an experience in life that feels like a fire, or a test, or being pressed into powdery ash; but we are loved even in the midst of it all.
This Lent, I think I’ll pray for God to help me give up my own fight or flight reactions. My struggle to control. My desire to make things go this way or that. Instead, I nee God to help me hold things lightly. To trust that God is in control. To trust that God cares for a bunch of ashes like me – and a bunch of ashes like you too.
We are dust – and to dust we shall return… but we are well loved dust called to hold things lightly in the days to come.
How might holding things lightly be helpful to you today and through Lent?
This painting is titled, “Holding things Lightly” and is by Tara Lamont Eastman.