The smell permeates your hair, your coat, the clothes you are wearing. Like a campfire, but not quite as familiar, the smell of burnt palm fronds has an incredible ability to linger. The first time I burnt palm fronds I was in college, and another student and I were assigned to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Neither of us had any idea what we were supposed to do. The chaplain we worked for explained, “It’s easy: Take the palm fronds we saved from last Palm Sunday, burn them, and then grind them up.” Easily said, but accomplishing the task was a little more challenging.
It was February in Minnesota. The snowbanks were shoulder height and the wind chill made everyone want to stay inside, but we were standing outside with an old metal bucket, a bushel of crispy palm fronds, and a lighter. My colleague asked if there was a special prayer we should say, so we made one up. We lit the first palm fond. It smoked and extinguished within a second. We tried a few more. At that point we tried saying a new prayer. Maybe we needed to call down the power of God for this particular practice?
The next hour could have been fodder for a sitcom. Our palm fire ranged from single embers to roaring conflagration. The wind occasionally sent our meager ashes billowing into the snow. Our classmates walked past whispering, clearly wondering what strange rite or ritual we were leading. Needless to say, the grinding didn’t go much better. There are parts of a palm frond that are indestructible – no fire, mortar and pestle, or anything will crush those final sticks! But we tried. We left a very small bowl of ash outside the chaplain’s office wondering if we had made enough.
By the time I walked into my afternoon class, there was ash embedded deep under my fingernails, and every few seconds I would notice the smell of smoke – only to realize that I was in fact the source of the smell. Later that evening, as students gathered for worship, and some somewhat lumpy ash and oil was placed on my forehead, I watched with a combination of worry and astonishment as cross after cross was added, until a room was filled with people wearing the same sign with the oil and ash glistening in the candlelight.
It was a messy, frustrating, beautiful day. There were moments we got it right, moments when we failed miserably, and moments when the world around us watched with concern asking, “What on earth is happening?” The day lingered under fingernails, in the smoky smell that followed after, in the lumpy ash cross that stained a washcloth.
Every Lent we begin with simple instructions: Follow Jesus, get ready for Easter, turn toward God. Whatever the instruction, they are simple, and yet the practice is far more complicated. It is frustrating – with starts and stops. At times it is underwhelming, and other times overwhelming. People will wonder what you are doing, and others might shake their heads certain that they know a better way. But the beauty of Lent is that it sticks with you. Each action is a little step, a little turning, a little practice of kingdom living.
May God bless your Lenten Journey – the right and wrong turns; the starts and the stops; and the holy and the mundane. May you spend these 40 days in the close company of saints, sinners, and your Savior. May God’s word guide you, angels tend to you, and the Spirit surprise you. Amen.