February 22, 2012 § 5 Comments

Burning of the PalmsLent begins with fire and Easter begins with fire.

On Shrove Tuesday at St Luke’s there is a fire. If I remember correctly we first burned the palms from last Palm Sunday before the 6:15 Eucharist in a short ceremony in the amphitheater behind the church about 12 years ago. We used a new metal trashcan, the sparks went so high and the fire was so smoky that the lid was put on the can before all the palms had burned.  After much discussion, we are Episcopalians after all, it was decided to use a lower more spread out tub to burn the palms so that the fire would not be so intense and burn more slowly and evenly. This worked well as the palm burning moved from behind the church to the sidewalk right outside the north school gate near Laughlin Hall and most recently in front of the church inside the main gate on Hudson Street. Moving the burning to in front of the church does tend to add a bit of drama to a usually quiet night in the West Village.

 The one problem that seemed to happen almost every year is that the “Holy Palm Tub” would go missing the week before we needed to use it! It usually meant a search in every closet on the block to see if anyone could find the tub. One year it was a mad dash to Home Depot in Westchester on the Sunday just before Shrove Tuesday to get a new tub since no HD’s were in the city yet. Now we have two tubs that live permanently in the sacristy waiting for that one day of the year.

 You would think that dried brittle palm branches would burn easily. Yeah, well, they don’t. After years of trial and error we have finally come up with a sure fire way that ensures that the palm will burn. We use a layer of cotton in the bottom of the tub. This allows the fire to sustain itself and burn the entire palm but it also allows us to save the ashes and use them on Ash Wednesday. The cotton sheet retains its shape and wholeness and the palm turns to ash.

 A few weeks after Shrove Tuesday at the Great Vigil we kindle new fire to light the Paschal Candle it’s the first thing the bishop does when the procession comes into the dark church. A flint is used and the flame is nurtured on a secret mixture so that it burns bright but not hot. Once the flame is burning strong the bishop is given a small candle to light the Paschal Candle and once the Paschal Candle is burning the new fire is put out.

 The difference between the two fires is that the Shrove Tuesday destroys but the New Fire of the great Vigil brings light and life. The fire on Shrove Tuesday turns the palm to ash but the new fire brings light to a dark night. The Shrove Tuesday fire burns fast and hot but the new fire is nurtured and tended so that it will never go out.

– Sean Scheller

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§ 5 Responses to Fire!

  • gochrisgo75 says:

    Sean, thanks for sharing this behind the scenes look at St. Luke’s. I love these stories.

  • Julia Alberino says:

    Thanks, Sean! This is a good inside look at what goes into that dramatic fire ceremony. I remember that mad dash to HD in Westchester only too well. Seems like yesterday that we spent that quality time as a group getting a new fire tub. .

  • Dan Ade says:

    It’s great how the once” exotic” becomes the norm. I love the idea that it has moved “out front” to the street.

  • On Tuesday night several people did stop to watch the flames. A couple of folks remarked on the presence of Doug Houston with a fire extinguisher. My response was, “We’re religious, not stupid.”

  • Hugh M. Grant says:

    Thank you, Sean, for this reminder of how rich the symbol of fire is in our tradition–destroying to make way for new life, lighting our paths in our new lives of loving service.

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