ashwed.jpgI’m slacking. For a variety of reasons, we’re unable to get to a service tonight, and I’m trying to make the best of my time by reading Kenneth Burke, but I keep being spiritually drawn to the candle and the busted up palm on my desk. I’ve got Bernard of Clairvaux and David James Duncan available for my own meditation on ashes later on tonight, but when I opened the Bernard a sheet of paper fell out, one that brought back a lot of memories, that I need to share.

Thanks, Mark.


A Meditation on the Palms

Why palms? This is an ancient practice, emerging as part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the Middle Ages. The palms we use are from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. We remember holding them with joy during the worship of Palm Sunday, and see the delight on the children’s faces as they waved them in processions down red-carpeted church aisles, and in Sunday School classes decorated with bright pictures of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They also bespeak our hasty praise of the God we honor in triumph and expectancy. They remind us, too, that we often turn from Jesus’ way in difficult seasons – when discipleship becomes costly; when the witness to justice calls us to bear the cross of suffering for others; when we break our faithful intentions and turn away in fear, discouragement, or doubt.

We take these palms this day, no longer green with hope and pliable with life but now dry and brittle, and burn them into ashes. In these flames, they remind us of Jesus’ passionate life for others, and the suffering and death this brought upon him. The smoke that rises into the skies symbolize the betrayals, denials, and confusions that break community among us. We hear again, in this spectacle, distant echoes of human hopes rising in places of despair – in ancient and modern Jerusalem, a city of triumph and of defeat; in cities and villages throughout Iraq, torn by war and fractured by fear and strife; in island lands and homes devastated by floods and earthquakes; in neighborhoods where we live among those without homes, without work, without hope. Will we hear in these places voices joined in proud “Hosannas,” or laments of anguish and cries of injustice? Will we be awake to the anguish that overcomes so many despite the proud rhetoric of the conquerors?

We take these palms to remember the beauty and resilience, the fragility and fallibility, of our strivings and intentions. We see in them the sincerity and the insufficiency of our piety and actions. We recognize in these palms the courage we once had and lost; the noble desires we set aside in yielding to lesser ambitions; the commitments we allowed to dissipate through fear and doubt and negligence. We take them as symbols of human frailty, of our frailty and that of others. We see in them reminders of our failing to uphold God’s reign of peace and justice for all peoples, and especially the poor, the weak, the lost. In their burning, we confess that we have not loved ourselves, or others, or God, with all our heart and mind and strength. We confess that we have often lived badly and loved poorly, that too often we have turned from others and clung to our own privilege. We confess that we have not loved our enemies as Jesus commanded us to do, but have scorned them, bombed them, imprisoned them. In all these ways, we failed to discover Christ in them.

We burn them, and mark our foreheads with them, as Christians have done for centuries before us as a tangible image of repentance, an offering of our intention to widen our hearts. The ashes are a sign for us to remember that our failings are not final endings; they are places to begin anew. They call us to live lives shaped by justice – to seek forgiveness for ourselves, and offer it for others; to oppose all the separates us from God’s generative love; to resist the evil powers of the world. They awaken our desire to live, as Jesus lived, for the full human dignity and rights of all those who are oppressed and marginalized, hated and outcast. They encourage us to follow in Jesus’ way by living lives shaped not by judgment and inertia but by mercy and compassion.

— Mark S. Burrows: Ash Wednesday of Lent, 2005