On Shrove Tuesday, the rest of the country may turn its mind to pancakes, but if you are a clergyperson whose outlook is – I exaggerate for effect – anywhere to the Catholic side of the late Dr Ian Paisley, you will be looking forward to the licensed act of pyromania that is the burning of the palm crosses. The intense, moving liturgy of Ash Wednesday requires, well, ash, and though you can buy it pre-prepared from well-known ecclesiastical wholesalers, it’s much more fun to make it yourself.
It was curate Marion’s turn to take the earlier of our two Masses-with-Ashing. ‘Do I have to burn the crosses in front of everyone?’ she asked nervously. Of course not, it takes ages! Apparently at her previous church they had the custom of setting light to a single palm in the middle of the service, and crushing it into a bowl of oil resulting in a dark liquid that was then used to mark the congregation’s foreheads with the sign of the cross. I would argue that this is not ash so much as gloop, and picturesque though it may be this process is entirely unnecessary and open to all sorts of things going wrong.
As, of course, is the more mainstream practice; it just happens (usually) a safe distance from the church. Here, for a couple of weeks before Lent begins, we gather up the blessed crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observances which, hopefully, people have kept at home in sufficient numbers. I then take them home.
Over the years I have developed a system that works tolerably well (others may do it differently). First, the palms need to be cut up: in their ‘natural’ state they are folded and looped in such a way that the thick bits are very hard to burn. The smaller the pieces, the better. Then, they are put into a metal container (an old biscuit tin suffices); I’ve found it helpful to add a bit of paraffin as an accelerant (though not too much). This year I had an old purificator to get rid of so that was cut up and doused with paraffin and the palm pieces laid on top of it.
The weather is another important consideration here. You don’t want to do the burning in the house, because it produces a) a surprising amount of heat and b) a lot of acrid smoke once the actual burning is over. However a day that’s too breezy will cause you a lot of problems, more than if it’s wet. I am lucky in that the area outside my back door is quite sheltered; and this year conditions were almost ideal anyway.
So now the time has come to commit the act. I still hazard my safety with matches but a long-handled lighter would be better. It’s helpful to have something suitable (metal but with a non-metal yet non-meltable handle) to stir the bits round with so that they all get consumed. As much ash should be produced as possible because it doesn’t go very far, and you’d be surprised at how little ash a pile of, say, fifty palm crosses resolves into. I usually find that a couple of supplementary splashes of paraffin and lightings are required to get rid of enough of the pieces.
Once all this is done and the ash has cooled down, it needs to be broken up. If you’ve used a biscuit tin or something to burn the crosses in, you can now pop in some suitably heavy and impervious object (a 50p piece will do well), put the lid on and give it a good shake. You then need to sieve the resulting ash to remove all the remaining big pieces and achieve the necessary consistency; sometimes more than one sieving is needed, and you may like to try to crush some of the residue to get the most possible use out of it. As the ash has come from objects which have been blessed at some point, whatever bits are left over I prefer to scatter in the garden rather than put in the bin.
And there you have it: your ash for the year. Now, you may well argue that just because this is good Dangerous Book for Boys-type fun for clergy it doesn’t justify all the time you spend doing it. But there is an elemental circularity about reusing the crosses from last year – the same people bring them back who are then marked with their ashes, their dead remains, to express their own mortal nature. We are mortal, formed of the dust of the earth: yet God stoops to the measure of our lowliness, touches us, releases us from what we are. The cross is the sign of death and the sign of life at once. It wouldn’t be the same buying the ash from elsewhere.
So we knelt on Ash Wednesday evening, first me, and then Julie the sacristan who marked me, then everyone else in turn: an ecumenical gathering, a couple of Roman Catholics, a Baptist minister, a smattering of evangelical Anglicans as well as the Swanvale Halt folk. Those unspeakably deep words, that resonate with the whole story of who we are, we humans: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return: repent, and believe in the Gospel.