Concerning ashes.

Burning palmsToday is Sexagesimus Sunday.  Ash Wednesday is but a week and a half away.

“Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

I am sure you are making your plans for your Lenten practices.  No, really… I’m sure you are.

Your Lent may begin with going to Mass on Ash Wednesday, depending on your schedule and inclinations.  Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation.  It is a day of fasting and abstinence for those who are bound by law.

People who can’t go to Holy Communion will often go to Mass on Ash Wednesday because they can go forward and receive ashes.

Lay people generally receive on the forehead.  Latin Church clerics traditionally received them on the place of their clerical tonsure.  This is why on Ash Wednesday, if you watch the broadcast from Rome of the Holy Father going to the Station Church Santa Sabina, you will see the cardinal usually put ashes on top of the Pope’s head rather than on his forehead.

Where do these ashes come from?

I think you can probably buy them from religious good stores these days, but the true source is the burning of the previous year’s palms (or olive) from Palm Sunday.

ACTION ITEM: If you have old palms, you might consider finding out from the parish priest if he is going to burn palms and prepare ashes for the Dies cinerum, Ash Wednesday.  If he is going to do this, find out if you can bring your old palms to him.

The older, traditional four prayers for blessing ashes are ancient and powerful.

Almighty and everlasting God, spare those who are penitent, be merciful to those who implore Thee; and vouchsafe to send Thy holy Angel from heaven, to bless + and sancti+fy these ashes, that they may be a wholesome remedy to all who humbly implore Thy holy Name, and who accuse themselves, conscious of their sins, deploring their misdeeds before Thy divine mercy, or humbly and earnestly beseeching Thy sovereign goodness: and grant through the invocation of Thy most holy Name that whosoever shall be sprinkled with them for the remission of their sins may receive both health of body and safety of soul. Through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

The business of blessing ashes, which will soon come into physical contact with the people present, is a serious affair.  It is of such importance that the first thing the priest does is invoke the help of an angel!

I will deal more with ashes in the days before Ash Wednesday.  In the meantime I wanted to put idea to you: perhaps you could bring your palms to be burned if that is the way your parish does things.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Cazienza Puellae says:

    Yesterday I handed over a small plastic bag with my palm branches from the last few years (this is the first year I’ve actually remembered it on time!). Fr. was pleased. And then he heard my Confession and gave me a sound telling off for my sins. I don’t think the two are related.

  2. FrCharles says:

    When I was a parish priest, the smell of burning palms would always be the first taste of that ‘joyful season.’

  3. Faith says:

    What do you do with your palms when your church doesn’t collect them?

  4. Faith says:

    My daughter use to go to girl scouts that used the basement to the Episcopal Church. One day, while waiting for the scouts to be dismissed, I saw the priest come out and burn palms in a coffee can. Is that what you do to them?

  5. Of course, in Italy EVERYONE receives it sprinkled on the head. I remember once seeing little old Italian ladies freaking out because a Filipino priest was making crosses with the ashes. Hence, in Italy, you can’t tell who has been to Ash Wednesday services, because no one has the smudge.

  6. Allan S. says:

    We all got materials today at our parish about this:

    Lent, apparently, is really all about the environment.

  7. Nora says:

    Faith, I am the sacristan at our parish. I burn the palms in a coffee can, run them through a metal sifter, then grind them in a mortar and pestle, before mixing them with enough olive oil to make a spreadable, slightly pasty mixture; makes a great cross on the forehead! Actually, the “I” is a bit of a misnomer. I frequently let an eighth grade boy do the burning befoer I do the rest. Playing with fire in the service of the church for service hours is just good catechesis; they love being entrusted with the holy Buddy Burner.

  8. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z.

    The new translation of the novus ordo Roman missal makes the blessing prayers a little better than the dumbed-down, lame-duck ICEL version currently in use. (See below, for excerpt from the wikileaks version:

    Still like the old prayer better.

    -After the Homily, the Priest, standing with hands joined, says: –

    Dear brethren (brothers and sisters), let us humbly ask God our Father
    that he be pleased to bless with the abundance of his grace
    these ashes, which we will put on our heads in penitence.

    -After a brief prayer in silence, and, with hands extended, he continues: –

    O God, who are moved by acts of humility
    and respond with forgiveness to works of penance,
    lend your merciful ear to our prayers
    and in your kindness pour out the grace of your  blessing
    on your servants who are marked with these ashes,
    that, as they follow the Lenten observances,
    they may be worthy to come with minds made pure
    to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of your Son.
    Through Christ our Lord

    — OR —

    O God, who desire not the death of sinners,
    but their conversion,
    mercifully hear our prayers
    and in your kindness be pleased to bless  these ashes,
    which we intend to receive upon our heads,
    that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes
    and shall return to dust,
    may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
    gain pardon for sins and newness of life
    after the likeness of your Risen Son.
    Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

  9. Vincent. says:

    This post reminded me of a question that I had been meaning to research. I thought I should also share this here. My parish is planning on having a pre-Lenten retreat spread over the course of the three evening preceding Ash Wednesday. During one of the nights they are asking the attendees to write something down on a piece of paper. (At this time I cannot exactly remember what it is the attendees are to write.) These papers will be kept and burned and those ashes will be mixed in with the palm ashes given out on Ash Wednesday. My instincts tell me that this is not proper. I’m going to see if I can find any directions regarding ashes that may speak to this. Can anyone point me in the right direction to any resources that may be helpful on this?


  10. wolfeken says:

    If your priest does not know the distribution line by memory, perhaps a layman could help him by printing this on a little cheat-sheet for him with his consent.
    “Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    I come from a papermaking family, Vincent. I don’t think ashes are supposed to have paper content because there are often all kinds of ingredients in paper. Nevertheless, it’s not like they’re a sacrament. I believe ashes are a sacramental, right Fr Z?

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