A View from the Sacristy: Lent Comes to St. Luke’s!

February 10, 2016 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Lent Comes to St. Luke’s!

veilsLent comes to St Luke’s! In my mind, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are one continuous day, even though each has its own rhythm and focus.  On Shrove Tuesday, it’s pancakes and King Cake’s (this year I even stood in line at Randazzo’s in New Orleans and got my own!). Ash Wednesday is all Psalm 51, kneeling and simplicity.

For the altar guild, the liturgical seasons arrive well before the actual day: Christmas arrives on the weekend before December 25th, Easter arrives on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and Lent begins on the last weekend of the Epiphany season.  In those times before for each season, many things happen: at Christmas the Crèche is set up; at Easter the New Fire grill is put back together and the cross used on Good Friday is taken down from the wall; for Lent, pieces of linen are ironed, frontals are put on altars, and cast iron replaces silver and brass.

One of my favorite Lenten traditions at St Luke’s is the covering of the sacred images. Many churches only cover their images during Holy Week, but our tradition is to cover the images for the whole Lenten season. Our sacrisity has a drawer called “Lenten Coverings” and this is where we store all the linen we use to cover all the images.  We use coverings in the church that match the color of the walls so that the covering blends into the background. The first image that is covered always seems to be the icon of Our Lady of the Sign. Every Shrove Tuesday I climb up a ladder to place the carefully ironed linen cloth and come face to face with the Virgin Mary. What do you say when you meet the Virgin? I usually say first “Ave Maria!” and then as the cloth covers her face, “See you at Easter!”

The next image is the icon of Christ above the door where our processions begin. This is a difficult icon to see since it is so high but it is very beautiful. We have to use the tall ladder to reach the icon. I am usually trying not to look down or fall off the ladder so I do not have as much of a conversation with Christ but I do say, “See you at Easter!”

The next sacred image that is covered is the Lenten processional cross. We have three processional crosses at St Luke’s: our Icon Cross that we use most of the year, the silver Easter Cross (which seems to weigh a ton), and the brass Lenten Cross. The Easter cross has the Lamb of God at the crossing with the symbols of the Evangelist on the ends of the beams. It’s a very simple design. The Lenten Cross has been with us for over 100 years. It is is need of some TLC but it seems a shame not to use it and so why not use it when it can be covered?

The chapel images are always covered after the burning of the palm and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist before the parish pancake supper. Lent comes to the chapel later than the rest of the church. In the chapel, we have the icon panels of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, an icon of our patron St Luke, as well as the Rood Cross saved from the fire. We have beautifully crafted coverings that have a purple and ox blood panels down the center. I love how it gives the chapel a quiet dignity during this solemn season.

In Lent I miss seeing these sacred images. They are so much a part of my attending church. They are much like the person who always sits in the second pew on the right but one Sunday morning is not there and you wonder why. Did they go away for the weekend? Are they on the intercession list? I really should ask after them but who would know? Not seeing the images causes me to meditate and ponder them in almost the same way. If they were visible I would most likely give them a second thought but now that they are gone they make their presence know almost in a troubling way. Isn’t that one of the challenges of Lent?  To examine ourselves and take notice of those things that we take for granted and to be thankful for them before they go away?

– Sean Scheller

The View from the Sacristy: Ashes to Ashes, We All Fall Down

February 25, 2015 Comments Off on The View from the Sacristy: Ashes to Ashes, We All Fall Down

20150218_194146 (2)Last week I wrote to you about the burning of the palms on Shrove Tuesday. I wanted to let you know what happens next!

So … the palms are burned, we come inside, we enjoy a beautiful pancake supper, and we have a leftover tub of burned palm ash. The ash that remains from the fire is nothing like the ash you see or feel on Ash Wednesday. This was something we learned after burning the palm a few times and decided one year to keep the ash to use on Ash Wednesday.  The ash in the tub has large pieces of charred, but not burned, pieces of palm … there’s also a pebble or two … and the burned, but still intact, piece of untreated cotton we used to charge the fire that remains in the bottom of the tub.  Ideally, we just want the palm ash, right? The best thing to do is let the tub sit … not for a day or two, but for months. You need to clean and sift the palm ash, and it works best if you wait until the heat is completely out of the palm detritus. (It also works best when you can do this outside on a not-very-windy day.) Palm ash is much like Christmas tree needles or beach sand or packing peanuts in that it gets everywhere, especially when you are working with it, and you find it months later stuck in the carpet. So:

  • wear gloves, maybe even a face mask
  • fish out the largest pieces of palm that did not burn
  • take out the piece of cotton
  • stir the remaining ash around and form into a pile
  • dump the pile into a clean container
  • use a colander or sifter to further clean the ash (This is when it is important to not have a breeze since the ash does have a tendency to float in any slight breeze!)

ashesWe have used different sizes of sifters to get the finest ash possible.  This can take a few hours, depending on how mush ash there is in the tub. Once you have the ash sifted, you can store it in an air-tight container for use on Ash Wednesday. (You may notice that the ash can be a nice mix of black and white particles.)

Next time round I’ll explain the transformation from regular ash to Ash Wednesday worthy ash! Stay tuned !

– Sean Scheller

The View from the Sacristy: from Palms to Ashes

February 18, 2015 Comments Off on The View from the Sacristy: from Palms to Ashes

10599535_787681051297641_4450337035165703337_nIt was only a few years ago that we started burning the palms on Shrove Tuesday instead of purchasing ready-to-go ashes.  I’m not exactly sure why it happened, but it seemed like a good idea and a liturgical way to recycle the palm left over from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  We used a brand-new metal garbage can from Home Depot and burned the palm at the floor of the amphitheater behind the church. It was a chilly Tuesday evening and the service began with everyone gathered around on the theater steps. We discovered that even though the palm had been sitting around the sacristy for months and was very dry, they just didn’t want to catch fire. Eventually we had a smoldering smokey fire that took forever to burn. We took notes to plan for the following year. That next year we prepared the palm by adding some lighter fluid to the metal can on some paper.  The way the winds blew caused the flame from the can to shoot up into the air which caused some concern among the attendees, especially the clergy who were very close to the flames. (The good thing is that eyebrows and lashes will grow back after a certain amount of time.) The next year we moved the burning to just outside the school gate next to Laughlin Hall. A new shorter metal tub was purchased from Home Depot so flames would not shoot up and, without the updraft of the winds, the palm burned without much trouble. We still used lighter fluid, but more sparingly, but this meant we couldn’t use those ashes because they had lighter fluid in them.  After many years of trial and error we discovered that the palm will burn well in a hot fire, so now we use a piece of untreated cotton which catches fire easily and gets hot enough to cause the palm to burn. Watch this space for our secret to kindling the perfect “new fire” at the Easter vigil!

– Sean Scheller

Ash Wednesday: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Lenten Message 2015

February 18, 2015 Comments Off on Ash Wednesday: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Lenten Message 2015

jeffertsschori_300_0Lent is about to begin. That word in English comes from an Old English word that means “to lengthen,” and it’s a reminder of the days getting longer as we move toward summer out of the dark of winter.

But in a number of other languages, particularly Spanish and French, the word for “Lent” reflects “forty days,” “cuaresma.” Forty days of wandering in the desert, forty days of Jesus out in the desert.

It’s also about a journey.  And it’s a journey that is about enlightenment if we’re willing to think about it that way.

Lent is an ancient tradition of solidarity and preparation for those who look forward to Baptism at the Easter Vigil.  It has always been a time for prayer and study, fasting, self-denial, and alms-giving, sharing what we have with those who do not have.  Prayer is an opportunity to reflect on who walks with us in the desert, who brings light into the world. Study is an opportunity to do the same kinds of things looking at the history of our tradition, where have human beings found light and direction in their journey through this world.  Fasting and self-denial are an inward-reflection on what it is that keeps us in the dark, or what it is that keeps us directionless, or that keeps us overly self-focused.  And it becomes an invitation to turn outward and share what we have with those who have not.  To build solidarity among God’s people and the rest of the earth.

One of the most memorable Ash Wednesdays I ever spent was in San Jose, Costa Rica, in a school for children. I was asked to place ashes on the foreheads of toddlers.  It was a provocative experience in the deepest sense, reminding very small children that they are mortal.

That cross that comes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of the cross that’s put there at Baptism.  You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  The cross that comes at Ash Wednesday is a reminder that you are dust and to dust we shall return, that we share that dust with every other human being who has ever walked this planet, that we share that dust with the stars and the planets, that we share that dust with all that has been created.  We are made for relationship with creator and creation.

Lent and cuaresma is a journey to walk toward that light.  May it be a blessed one this year.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Video here:  http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/presiding-bishop

Ash Wednesday: How We Burn the Palms

March 5, 2014 Comments Off on Ash Wednesday: How We Burn the Palms

Burning of the Palms[Editor’s note: We will post a series of posts from the Altar Guild about why and how we do what we do at St. Luke’s during Lent.]

The ashes we use at St Luke’s on Ash Wednesday are made by burning leftover palms from Palm Sunday. In the past, this was not our practice; we used to use store-bought palms, since one would think that dry palm would burn easily and create very pleasant ashes. This is not the case. The dry palm burns, but it takes some work to make it into ashes suitable for distribution during the service. The first problem is getting the palms to ignite. We used to use lighter fluid to get the palms burning, but that meant we really couldn’t use the result for ashes since I’m sure lighter fluid isn’t good for human skin. Another problem is that the palm veins tend not to fully burn and so the ashes are filled with lumps and hard pieces. After much experimenting, we discovered that a layer of cotton on the bottom of the tub we use to burn the palms gave a good base to the flames and burned hot enough to make ash of the palms. The cotton also kept its integrity so that it could be easily removed from the palm ashes. Another hint for good ashes is to push the palm ash through a sieve once cooled to remove any large veins or other materials which have crept into the ash.

– Sean Scheller on behalf of the Altar Guild

Parish Interview: What Do Ashes Mean to You This Year?

March 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

St. Luke in the Fields Blog: What do ashes mean to you this year, Weiben?

Weiben Wang: There’s been a lot of death lately. In the month leading up to Ash Wednesday, I served in two funerals for friends at church. Then a friend’s father died, so, a week before Ash Wednesday, I ended up with a two funeral weekend. I saw one person’s ashes, and helped to shovel dirt onto another’s coffin. It so happened that Mother Stacey’s sermon on Ash Wednesday focused on mortality. She talked about crematoria, and images of my grandparents’ funerals came to mind. The Chinese are much less squeamish about the physical aspect of death. I watched both of them go into the furnace, and I saw them when they came out. With dust pans and chop sticks, we helped to pick through the remains and put them in jars. At my grandmother’s funeral, we wore actual sackcloth; it’s funny how the image of sackcloth and ashes was so immediate at a throughly non-Christian funeral. And we censed the dead, though with joss sticks by the fistful. Temples are full of ash from millions of joss sticks.

The other time I was marked on my forehead was at an Easter Vigil, and was “marked as Christ’s own forever.” It was the same gesture, and the same sensation, but with a different substance, and different significance, with oil rather than ash, joyous rather than somber, marking rebirth rather than death. The grace in all that ashen grimness was knowing that at the other end comes Easter, that through Lent and Good Friday, on the other side of the cross comes renewal, joy, and celebration.

In words from the Orthodox Easter liturgy, which I also like to attend:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!


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

Ash Wednesday: A Reflection on The Imposition

March 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Sure I’d be glad to help.”

“Really? Are you sure, I’d hate to impose,” I reply.

“Oh, no, seriously,” they assure me. “It wouldn’t be an imposition at all. I’d be glad to pick up your dry cleaning / help with your PowerPoint / take a volunteering shift for you / feed your cat . . . ”

Conversations like these are looping through my head as I consider Ash Wednesday. I keep returning to the “imposition.”

Here’s what The Book of Common prayer says is happening in thousands
of churches today —
The ashes are imposed with the following words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And Ash Wednesday is an imposition, right? Our tradition tells us — imposes on us — to consider our own birth and death today. Remember you are made of microscopic particles, and to microscopic particles you shall return. Today’s another typical New York City day — a quick coffee stop, an email from a friend, a subway delay due to a sick passenger, tabloid headlines about an actor in a sitcom I’ve never seen — with one extra thing added to the top of the to-do list. We’re compelled to think about our own creation and our own death. That’s a pretty big side job, isn’t it?  Emily Dickinson’s dark carriage comes to mind: “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me –”

Imposition turns out to be a rich word with many meanings. Impositions can be uncalled for burdens, things we really do just to be polite. We call big presences, reaching magnificence beyond our understanding, “imposing” too. I’m thinking: redwood trees, Empire State Building, Queen Elizabeth II. I just learned that in graphic design imposition means “setting up pages in their correct order.”

Dear God, Lent begins today. Stand with us as ashes are imposed on our foreheads in the shape of your Cross. Be patient with us while we try to think about our birth and death and remember the vastness of your creation. Help us to see this Lent as a opportunity for setting our lives in order. We want to reach beyond a polite relationship with You to something that’s really magnificent. Amen.

— Chris Phillips

(image: mtsofan on Flickr via Creative Commons)

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