At some point I had let it be known that, ideally, ashes for Ash Wednesday worship would come from the palm leaves used during the previous year's Palm Sunday worship. So I wasn't surprised when, a few weeks ago, our church worship coordinator handed me a large bag and said, "here are the branches for Ash Wednesday."
Tuesday afternoon, I began to set about the task of turning the branches into ashes. I opened the bag, and found... pine boughs. From Christmas.
My first instinct was to walk down the street, rip off a branch from a neighbor's palm tree, and burn it. Before doing so, however, I started to ponder why it is traditional to use last year's palm branches for this year's ashes. I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to me that the symbolism of using last year's Christmas branches might be just as meaningful.
So I made plans to burn Christmas tree branches for Ash Wednesday, even though that's not the right thing to do. However, I had spent the day hosting a lunch for local clergy, and the week was already shortened due to Presidents' Day, and I just happened to have a vial of ashes on my dresser, and pondered if it would be OK to take a "shortcut" in preparing the ashes. Unfortunately, we never had a "how to make ashes" course in seminary, so I wasn't really sure.
I thought some more about Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday isn't exactly about being "right," is it? It's not about doing everything perfectly, with dignity. Yes, we hold worship services, some of us, that are solemn and which attempt to be dignified, but how dignified can one really be when there's a black smudge on the forehead?
And that, I think, is part of the significance of Ash Wednesday. At last night's service, I mentioned how I, like most everyone else, work hard to present myself publicly as best I can, to hide my flaws, and at least pretend that I've got my act together. On Ash Wednesday, however, I am reminded of what a falsehood that is, and how prideful it is as well. Who among us really has their act altogether? Who among us doesn't feel insecure now and then? Who among us doesn't feel inadequate at times?
In the spirit of Ash Wednesday, I admit that I'm not as nearly self-suffucient as I pretend to be. Some days, I have no idea how to raise my kids. Other days, I lament my lack of knowledge in some seemingly important category, like economics and finance. And quite often, I find myself having to rely on the help and support of others, even though I'd rather be independent.
When the truth is exposed, I am humbled. I am forced to admit that I'm not perfect, no matter how perfect I try to be. I am just an earthen vessel, a clay jar, cracked, chipped, and fragile.
In other words, I'm human.
On Ash Wednesday, I repent of the pride and arrogance that makes me think I can do all things on my own. I confess my need to trust and rely on family, friends, and most especially, God. And I admit that, sometimes, I look for the easy way.