IMG_2771A week ago, many of us participated in a holy ritual–Ash Wednesday. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Drawing the ash cross on another person is somber and sacred and poignant . . . and potentially a logistical nightmare.

I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday, and my first year as pastor I was at a bit of a loss. Where do I get ashes? What do I mix with them? How do I reach everyone’s forehead? So I borrowed some ecumenical ashes and did the best I could.

Then I heard that you are supposed to burn palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and use those ashes to make the mark of the cross. The former English teacher in me loves the symbolism of this–these palm leaves that signify the joy of Jesus’ earthly life even as they portend his death are saved and transformed into the ashes we use in a blessing that brings life as it reminds us of our deaths.

Unfortunately, the actual person in me apparently cannot burn palm branches. I tried. And I ended up with awkward, sooty chunks of plant and a very smoky church building. (A friend has since informed me that I should burn the palm leaves outside, which is a good tip.)

I still have dried palm leaves in a cabinet at church, but every year I just pull out the same little vial of ecumenical ashes. I don’t even know who burned what to make them, but they seem to work fine.

My ash incompetence is not something I dwell on, but it does feel like a minor pastor fail. Which is why I was delighted to read a thread on the Young Clergy Women page about other pastors’ “ash disasters.”

That’s the term Erica Schemper used to describe a situation that would warrant a trip to the drug store to buy black eye shadow. Erica suggests, “in the secrecy of your church office, chip that little cake of makeup out into your ash bowl or whatever, add a little olive oil.”

And before you get too horrified by the prospect of eye shadow instead of ashes, consider that at least most make-up is safe to put on human skin.

Stacy Sergent shares the following tip: “DON’T use the soil from a nearby potted plant! That’s what one of our hospital chaplains did when we ran out of ashes one year, and the soil had fertilizer in it. A nurse had an allergic reaction to the fertilizer and had to check in to the ER!”

So, to recap: burned palm branches: YES, if you can manage it; potting soil: NO!; eye shadow: in a pinch.

Which is what Jenny Replogle and her rector found themselves in doing Ashes to Go in the town square. The fireplace ashes the rector had brought were not working well and Jenny remembered reading the eye shadow tip from Emily. So, Jenny writes, the rector headed “off to CVS – in his cassock. He got there, realized he couldn’t remember what makeup item he needed, and, standing in his vestments, asks, ‘Where can I get some mascara?!’ Luckily, he did find black eye shadow. When he returned with it, he showed me and asked if he had bought the right thing, at which point I said – ‘Oh, I just remembered the other part of that post which said eye shadow WITHOUT glitter.’ Oops. We mixed it in anyway, and had lovely dark ashes with a hint of glitter, which were sparkly on a beautiful sunny day. . . . a sign that even in the darkness of death, the light of Christ shines through.”

And that is what this season of Lent is about, right? The darkness and the light.

I briefly considered giving up the humor column for Lent. In addition to being a somber part of the Christian year, it was during Lent last year that my father went into the hospital unexpectedly and died just two days after being diagnosed with leukemia/lymphoma. It feels like I should just be sad and serious for awhile.

But then I remember a silly joke my dad liked to tell. I read the Psalm: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” And I read about glitter in the eyeshadow/ashes.

The grief and the joy, the soot and the beauty, the death and the life, the human and the divine–they swirl around and within each other all the time. And during Lent we are called to open our eyes and our hearts just a bit wider to receive it all.

*With thanks to Erica Schemper, Stacy Sergent, and Jenny Replogle for permission to share their stories.

17 thoughts on “Wits’ Ends Day: “Ash Disasters”

  1. Please don’t worry- many of us are equally challenged! The Anglican Church in Toronto where I’m serving as Associate Priest now buys its ashes ready made. This is because a few years ago we had an enterprising curate who attempted to burn palm crosses in the sacristy and set off the fire alarm. The fire department came and then billed us $300 for a false alarm. My personal stash of palm crosses is getting bigger every year so may be one day I’ll try to burn them in my back yard!
    Blessings, Rev. Margaret Rodrigues


  2. Most of the ashes you buy (assuming from liturgical sources for Ash Wednesday) are, in fact, burned palms. My ecumenical group does not mix them with anything, but instead uses the dry ash to impose. Helps keep the goopiness from happening—but blows out of your container easily if you are doing Ashes to Go outside on a windy day. DEFINITELY burn ashes outside, unless your congregation is okay with the place smelling like a certain (mostly) illegal substance. I’m not sure if you can get high on palms, but it certainly smells that way!


  3. I loved this! We didn’t learn how to ‘do ashes’ in seminary. Not in mine anyway. I love the idea that it’s even ok to use sparkly eye shadow. And I love the message in that. And it is symbolic… really. The whole event. Thank you!


  4. I love these stories! Even in Lent (especially in Lent?), we need to have some good laughs and to be reminded that each of us is not the only one to ever have a mishap or misstep.


  5. Thank you! I needed this today! God is so good to remind us that we are never alone. And sharing our stories, that is what we are meant to do! This was perfect for a new pastor, who knew not to burn ashes inside (as a youth pastor, I burned them with the youth during our Lenten Lesson – which was an epic fail for me the first time!), but couldn’t figure out how much to have, what the combination of oil/ash should be, and ended up using enough for like 150 for the 47 people I had! Too bad I can’t save the rest for next year.


  6. did you hear about the priests in Britain who mixed water with their ashes, and the ashes burned people’s foreheads? Because, um, that’s a recipe for lye. You need to mix them with oil, not water.


  7. I didn’t know how to make ashes either. But have since learned. Sometimes it takes two years to thoroughly dry the palms. They have to be really dry to burn well. Always burn safely outdoors. I burn mine in a large coffee can. When the can is cool, I use a small mesh strainer – really fine mesh and sift the ashes through it. The larger chunks get thrown out and I am left with a very fine ash. If the ashes are really old they won’t stick well. Fresher ash, I have found, doesn’t need to mixed with anything. The go on well and stay on. I’m using three year old ash and they still stick fairly well. I have palms to burn but this winter never let up enough cold wise and snow to burn them. Perhaps, I’ll burn them in the fall.


  8. Oh yes, I can relate to this…tried to burn ash a couple of years ago and it didn’t go well…added newspaper burnt ash and then added some olive oil and made a big gooey mess but since my congregation had limited experience with Ash Wed. they didn’t hold it against me either…ditto to the tip on burning outside–people kept rushing around trying to find where the fire was in the church. So now I just go with the ones you buy and have released the expectation/stress that I should make my own.


  9. Hilarious. Love this. (Says the girl who still has a little bit of ash under the thumbnail she forgot to clip before Ash Wednesday…again!)


  10. I was so happy to read these stories – and the wonderful twists on making ashes. My first experience as a former “non-practitioner” of Lent and a new hospital chaplain involved a mix of fireplace ashes, pencil shavings and oil:} Humor and sharing are welcome any day and I love! the idea of glitter! Thanks to you all.


  11. I had such a chuckle reading this.
    I was very lucky: In my second placement I had a supervisor who showed me the trick. Firstly, the preparation and burning are done by the confirmation students – part of the experience of Lent for them.
    Last year’s palms have to be scissored or chopped into small pieces or they’ll never burn – a tedious process, but the kids all pitch in.
    Then they’re burned, which still leaves some chunks. These are sifted (like stinuksuk says above), or whirled in a blender to produce finer bits – and then mixed with oil
    Last year, during my internship, I was introduced to the idea of adding glitter. We used the following as our service:
    Remember we are stardust and to stardust we return
    (not great science perhaps, but wonderful meditation)


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