Burning last year’s palms…a challenge and an analogy for repentance. Words for Ash Wednesday – Adel Parish church.
Since this is my first incumbency – becoming Rector of Adel has involved a steep learning curve. One of the more esoteric skills I’ve had to master is that of turning last year’s palm crosses into this year’s ash.
It turns out to be considerably harder than you might think – and also not a bad metaphor for the Lenten journey of penitence we begin today.
First the ash has to be made from last year’s palm crosses – you can’t just go burning anything. So you need to prepare – to announce an appeal. Thank you for finding so many. I suspect some of us failed to find one – mine doesn’t seem to have survived the house move – but others appear to have been stock piling them for years!
I think that rooting around the house for palm crosses, rather than burning anything to hand is a good picture for penitence – saying sorry. There’s a temptation not to bother looking – to assume we’re ok, that we don’t really have anything important to say sorry for. Or we can overdo it – think that we’re so bad we end up almost wallowing in repentance, thinking that the more things we can find to feel bad about the better…feeling worthless.
Neither approach is much use. Repentance is meaningful if we look carefully, and consider seriously what in our life that needs to change. Repenting means turning…back to Christ from the things that separate us from his love. It needs us to take time to review our lives in the light of God’s love, so we know what we really need to turn from.
Well the first stage went wonderfully well, and I had a stack of palm crosses. A survey of friends who’ve already tackled this challenge came up with a number of steps: heat the palms in the oven to drive off any oils; cut them into small pieces; put them in a flame proof container and do your best to burn them. We don’t own the kitchen blowtorch suggested by one friend, so I had to make do with a gas lighter.
Genuine repentance takes effort too. Although we know being sorry doesn’t make us perfect, there’s not much point in saying sorry if we’re just going to go and do the same again. Having identified what’s wrong in my life – I need to think carefully about how I might start to put it right.
Sometimes that might be as simple as saying sorry, or reaching out to someone I’ve fallen out with. But it might mean serious thought about how I might stop making the same mistakes over and over. It might mean definite changes to my lifestyle.
Since I decided to attempt my ash making last Saturday, in gale force winds, I had the added challenge of making sure I did have some ash at the end, rather than it being spread across Adel. If you’re interested, I retreated to the garage.
We need that ash – as a powerful symbol in today’s service – but also as the useful bit from our sin. True repentance is hard work – because it means changing our lives. But I don’t think it means erasing what went wrong from our lives.
Our lives are littered with mistakes; because they’re the way we learn. Repenting means spending time with the guilt, so we want to avoid it in the future. It means developing some understanding of what went wrong and why. Serious repentance should leave us with ash, with valuable experience to help us grow in Christ.
By the end of Saturday afternoon I had enough ash for a couple of Ash Wednesday services and a visit to school. I also smelled as though I’d been at scout camp for a week. The smell rather followed me around, so that I couldn’t sit down anywhere until I’d had a shower, washed my hair, and put all my clothes in the washer.
And that’s the thing about Lent and repenting. It should end up with us feeling cleaner than when we started. It’s a time for recognising sin, thinking deeply about what’s wrong with our lives and how to put it right. It’s a serious matter – that’s why it lasts 40 days. But it doesn’t end with horrible guilt, it ends with God’s forgiveness.
So tonight we come for ash – to remind us of our sin and need for forgiveness. But afterwards we come to Christ’s table, knowing that sinners are welcome, and that if we’re truly sorry, there’s nothing God cannot wash away. We are beginning 40 days work of serious Lenten repentance…but we know it will end with Easter hope and salvation.