Making Ashes

Blessed palms to Lenten ashes, here is a chance for catechesis


This article first appeared in the Feb 2004 issue of Celebration.

Where do the ashes that mark the foreheads of the baptized on Ash Wednesday come from? It’s possible to buy them from a religious goods dealer, but making the ashes at the parish might provide a good opportunity for some catechesis on this biblical sign, especially with junior and senior high school-aged parishioners. As soon as possible after Christmas, begin asking people to bring their blessed palm branches back to church for the making of the ashes. Provide handsome containers—maybe wicker baskets—in the vestibule or narthex for people to deposit their palms in.

Don’t wait until the days before Ash Wednesday to make the ashes, just in case something goes wrong. Find a large metal can, or use the brazier in which you build the Easter Vigil fire. A new garbage can is good; perhaps you can purchase it and use it only for making ashes each year. You’ll also need some kind of lid to cover the can or brazier with, to help extinguish the fire.

Burn the palms outside—it will be a very smokey fire. Set the can or brazier in a somewhat sheltered place not too far from the church, but not too near it, either. Stuff some of the palms in the bottom of the can or brazier. Indoors, place the baskets of palms in the midst of where the assembly will sit. You’ll need some music: an opening hymn and a setting of the “Lord have mercy” that everyone knows. You’ll need a reading or readings: one or two depending on the age and experience of the assembly. You’ll need a presider, and some ministers to lead the procession—perhaps one to carry the processional cross and two to carry candles. The presider will need a wick with which to start the fire. Make sure that all ministers are assigned and prepared ahead of time.

A week before, invite people to read or watch the news and be aware of the sinful trends that destroy people and planet. Call people to recollection right before the service begins by asking them to call to mind one such thing that they heard or saw in the past week. After an opening song, the sign of the cross, a greeting and a prayer, all sit for the reading(s). A short homily on the significance of ashes could follow. Then, while singing the “Lord, have mercy,” all process outdoors, picking up a handful of palms from the baskets as they go. Following the cross and candle bearers, they gather round the can or brazier. The presider lights the palms in the bottom of the can or brazier and then invites all to throw in their handful of palms, a couple at a time if the group is large, one by one if the assembly is small. As each one throws in the brittle branches, he or she says aloud the one sin he or she had been reflecting upon. The “Lord have mercy” can be sung while this being done, too. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer and with the presider encouraging all to return on Ash Wednesday to receive these very ashes as a sign of one’s willingness — and this community’s pledge — to resist the evils named and work with God to turn bad into good.

For the final preparation of the ashes, the large clumps of burned palm leaves need to be scooped out of the garbage can, placed in a coffee can or a stainless steel bowl and ground with a pestle until fine. But wait until the burning can has cooled! (You can put the lid on the can and move it to an out of the way place until the next day.) You need a large quantity of palms to make a small quantity of ashes. And if you want to be sure that the ashes will make a dark cross that will not fade without being washed off, mix a small amount of lamp black — available at craft stores — in with the ashes. Store the ashes in a container with a lid to keep out moisture.

David Philippart is a parish liturgy director in Evanston, Ill.