It’s that time of year again. Any day now a box will appear in the monastery mailroom with a sign inviting the Sisters to place the previous year’s blessed palm in the box so that it may be burned to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Not many of us give it much thought, unless perhaps we are the one having to remember to put the box out or the one responsible for burning the palm. However, it is an unceremonious practice that can offer substantive meaning at this time in the year.
Recall that blessed palm comes from the opening of Holy Week on Passion Sunday, more popularly known as “Palm Sunday.” We bless palm branches somewhere outside of the regular worship space; we carry them in procession to and into the worship space; and we sing refrains of “Hosanna in the highest” and “Hosanna to the Son of David.” All of these liturgical actions bring the events of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem prior to his Passion into the present moment so that we too can experience the reality for ourselves. This kind of “making memory” in a liturgical sense is called anamnesis. We do this anamnesis every time we celebrate the Eucharist, recalling Jesus’ words of the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”
Palm branches in the time and place of Jesus were used for festive occasions. The crowds waved them in the air welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. They were excited about his coming, treating him with a type of quasi-royal fanfare that they themselves did not wholly understand. So, we can make the connection that palm branches represent life’s high points, that is, times of excitement and celebration. They are akin to the ribbons and streamers used for festive occasions today. When the liturgies of Palm Sunday are over, it is common practice to keep the blessed palm in a place of significance for the rest of the year—on a mirror, behind a crucifix, with the family bible, etc. It is a token reminder of our having participated in a significant event.
Ashes, on the other hand, symbolize the low points of our lives and the need to repent from sinful ways. Ashes confront us with our mortality, our limitations, and all the various ways that we fall short of the ideals to which we are called. Ashes bring to mind the nagging habits and patterns of daily living that prevent the light and life of God to radiate brilliantly through us. Ashes keep us real—making us realize that it is God alone who makes us spiritually clean. Our penitential actions are not punishments, nor do they themselves absolve us from sin. Penitential actions are the things that we do to show our sincere intent to change our lives for the better. Penitential actions help us to demonstrate our willingness to be changed by God’s grace. Ashes and penance (ideally) keep us humble.
As the forty days of Lent are soon to be upon us, perhaps it is time to collect memories from the past year, collecting both joyous memories and sorrowful ones, for they are equally part of us. And, once memories are gathered, imaginatively they can be tied together with a ribbon and placed in a sacred container for burning. This action of burning is an action of letting go of things that bind us and letting God transform our earth-centered ego into a God-centered humanity.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB