I did this because we need ashes for the Ash Wednesday service - which we actually do tonight after our Shrove (or Fat) Tuesday pancake supper. So today I got to burn stuff (which really is pretty fun - but don't try it at home kids, I am a seminary trained professional) to prepare for our service tonight.
The imposition of ashes is really about reminding us of our mortality (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) and of our sinful nature. And as I was burning the palm branches I spent some time thinking about the ashes as a metaphor for our sins, and I realized that it really is pretty spot on. Maybe the rest of you have always got this, but it is a new insight for me, so let me share.
We all carry around with us things we have done (or not done) that we regret. We all have sins that we are struggling with and that while maybe not always on the front burner of our thoughts are somehow present with us.
The palm branches I burnt this morning have been like that for me, they have sat on top of my book shelf for almost a year. While most of the time they go unnoticed, every once in a while - a couple times a week maybe (and almost every Sunday) I catch a glimpse of them and I am reminded of what they represent.
For the Palms thats okay, because they remind me of my first Lent and Easter season with Good Shepherd, so they are happy reminders.
But we all know not all of the things we have in our lives, in our hearts and that we carry around in our minds are happy reminders, many are those regrets and sins that weigh us down.
The goal I think is to let go of those things so that they no longer weigh us down or hold us back. It doesn't take a seminary trained professional to tell you that. Every self help book and Oprah expert will say something like that or to that effect.
Letting Go of the sins (or mistakes) and regrets of your past is the only way to really be able to live into the future God has planned for you and the future you were made for. (or something like that).
Again, I think burning the palm branches is a good metaphor for how we let go of or get rid of the things in our life that weigh us down or remind us of our failures and shortcomings. But here is the thing, right now I smell terrible. I don't smell nice like a camp fire, I smell distinctly like something burnt and it really isn't a pleasant smell.
So while I have, mostly, gotten rid of the palm branches (there is of course some ash left over) the stench of them is still stuck on me. In our metaphor you could say that I did the best I could to let go of and get rid of my sin, regret and mistakes - but something of them, the pungent burnt odor of them, remains.
The best we can do on our own to wash away or get rid of our past mistakes, regrets and sins still leaves a residue in the air and stuck on us. But this is, of course, what Jesus came for. When we allow Jesus into our lives and we submit our lives to him - giving over everything, even our tightly clenched regrets and mistakes. Then and only then are we truly washed clean and made new.
When we try to do this ourselves the best we can hope for is to be left with a foul smell on our skin and our clothes, but when we ask for Jesus to make us new, that is what we become, new creations made perfect again by the strength and power of Jesus' sanctifying, sacrificial love.
The ashes of tomorrow (or tonight) are meant to remind us not of our mistakes and shortcomings, but of the depth of God's grace and the power of Christ's love.
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!