Ashes From Palms

Received a few days ago by e-mail. I’ll tell you what I’ve done, but I’ll also confess I’ve never quite been able to match the smudge quality of the church supply sources:

This year our liturgy committee has decided to reinforce the origin and symbolism of the ashes used on Ash Wednesday by inviting parishioners to bring their palm fronds from Palm Sunday on the Sunday before Lent starts so we can burn them prior to Ash Wednesday. We think it’s a catechetical moment and a good way to communicate where the ashes come from, rather than “We just buy them from the church supply company.”

The problem is, some people have told me from their experience it’s very hard to burn old palm fronds. I’d be interested to know what experience your readers have in this regard, and any tips they might have to offer as to the logistics of the burning. I’d like to make sure we do it right the first time so we can make this a parish tradition.

I run the burned remnants of the palms through an old sifter. I’ve mixed the ashes with water in my early days, but I’ve gotten a fair result the past few years with a little bit of oil. Rachael Ray would say to eyeball it. Each year I test the smudge factor several times till it comes out close. I keep mixing alternate amounts of ash with oil till it gets close.

The best result I’ve had with the burning is to involve the Boy Scouts in the actual pyro stuff and to have the school kids process to an open area in the parking lot or field with their palm fronds. We have a brief prayer service (and no, we don’t sing “Ashes.”)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Ashes From Palms

  1. MaraJoy says:

    “Church supply sources?” They buy ashes? I just assumed they always burned the palms themselves. But I guess I didn’t know it was hard to do…
    Is it not allowed to just use ashes from something else? (That would be free…)

    • Peter Cornish says:

      No-one’s ever explained to me why the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are often from last year’s palm crosses (especially when they’re quite hard to burn). Instead, in our parish we always burn a few pages of our local newspaper, which burns easily and makes decent ash, especially if mixed with a little water or oil. And looked at theologically, it’s very appropriate because, after all, what fills up most of our local papers is stories of people’s sin; and so the ash that we receive on our foreheads is a reminder both of our own sinfulness and also of the sin of the world, of which we are a part – the sin which Jesus died that we might be forgiven.

      • Todd says:

        I rather like your idea, Peter. I confess that using palms is part of my traditional streak–I remember it years ago and most parishes don’t consider anything else. Good contribution; thanks.

      • Liam says:

        Using the palms from the prior Palm Sunday reminds us that the same crowds that greeted Christ with them abandoned, some even mocked, him within the same week. Also, because the proper way to dispose of a sacramental (something that has been blessed) is burial or burning; blessed palms are not simply discarded, so, since they are going to be burned, the use of the ashes therefrom was a form of conservation, since it’s only the superabundance of modernity that allows us to waste other things that might otherwise have served as vital fuel in eras when fuels were limited, even precious.

      • Peter Cornish says:

        Thanks, Liam – that’s helpful.
        We wouldn’t discard anything that’s been blessed, either. We avoid that in two ways: one is that we get the church stewards to give out palm crosses at the same time as hymnbooks, etc as people arrive, and then I get people to hold up their palm crosses for the blessing – so it’s only the palm crosses that have been distributed that get blessed, and the leftovers are simply returned to the vestry for use the following year. And I notice, when I visit people’s homes, that they often have two or three palm crosses on display as a reminder of Christ’s sacrificial love. (And I sometimes take one, at different times of the year, with me when I visit folk in hospital – that’s usually much appreciated.)

  2. Todd says:

    I’m not aware of any “regulation” on the content of ashes. I think burning palms is traditional. I actually have leftover ashes from previous years’ burning of palms. I always get enough from parishioners, but I have to be careful to extract all rubber bands before firing up the grill.

  3. howtocentral says:

    Hi, Todd…@ SJL we burn the palms then place in freezer baggie and roll to fine powder with rolling pin…our former pastor would slop a lot of water and make ‘ash soup’ just before Mass for the blackest smudge like no other! With our new pastor, we get to tryout the professional brand and compare.

  4. Last year about this time, when I had first arrived as pastor, the business manager — reacting to a mailing — said, “Do we have ashes for Ash Wednesday?” I said authoritatively, “I dunno”–so she told me a vial of them wasn’t much $, so I said, fine, get them.

    Then, when Ash Wednesday approached, I went over to set things up — and I found the supply . . . lots and lots of ashes — two or three large containers.

    Realize you don’t actually use much ash for Ash Wednesday. So we probably have a 50-year supply, right now. So we won’t be buying any ashes.

    When folks brought me palms, I did try burning the old palms in the Easter Fire. Along with the old oils.

  5. Gillian says:

    We invite parishioners to bring back the palms they got last Passion Sunday and we have a liturgy at Evening Prayer the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, at which a token piece of palm is smouldered in the censer. After the liturgy, a few of us burn the (couple of bushels of) palms and end up with about a biscuit tin full of ash. It is run through a sieve to get the thich bits out. we don’t mix anything else into them and have stockpiled enough ashes for our part of the diocese, even after distributing them at all eight parish schools and Ash Wednesday parish masses. I think our parishioners really connect with the meaning.

  6. Fr John says:

    I have been burning palms on Shrove Tuesday for years! I do it in the morning at our two schools. The children certainly enjoy it, and also learn a great deal about Ash Wednesday, Lent and Palm Sunday!

  7. nancy sinclair says:

    Anyone interested in sharing a liturgy for the buring of the Palms???

  8. Bill Ruston says:

    Bill, thank you for the information about creating ashes for the ash Wednesday service, I am still working on making them fine enough.

  9. Fr Peter Clark says:

    It is imperative that the Palm Crosses are completely dry before trying to burn them. Try spreading them on a sheet of paper in a slow oven until they are crisp, but keep a close eye on them. I then burn them outdoors in a foil tray, making sure that they are all consumed in the fire. By using the tray I ensure that the ashes are not contaminated by other types of ash. I then grind them to a fine powder using a small mortar and pestle that I keep for this purpose. I mix them with some Oil of Catechumens for Imposition, knowing that I will be disposing of the Holy Oils later in Lent, to be replaced at the Chrism Mass

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