A View from the Sacristy: Ready to Wear Ashes

March 4, 2015 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Ready to Wear Ashes

20150218_194219-1So, the ashes have been created, they are all ready to use! Well…not exactly. If you use just the plain burned palm it will only make a slight smudge on your forehead that wouldn’t even last until the end of the Ash Wednesday service.  You also would not have the picture-perfect ash cross we all hope for and desire.

There are a few theories on how to make the perfect ash but two things are common to each: you need to add some sort of fat or oil which accomplishes two things: 1. It makes the ashes darker, and 2. It causes the ash to adhere to skin.

Olive oil is a common bonding agent, although it doesn’t really make the ashes dark. I have never been able to get home-made ashes as dark as commercially-made ashes. Adding lampblack, however, which is a pigment made from burned fat or oil, gives the ashes a very rich, very dark pigment. Another benefit of the lampblack is that the fat or oil makes the ash adhere safely to skin. You can get some at a local craft store!

The one thing you never want to do is mix the ash with water. This can create a chemical called lye which is used in making soaps and oven cleaner. It can cause damage to the skin and can have hazardous reactions with certain metals and we do keep some of our ash in a metal container.

At St Luke’s we have lampblack in with the ash. Think back to Ash Wednesday and how long did your ash cross stay on you forehead. Did it last until the next morning? Did you have to scrub it off? See? Lampblack works!

We do have some ash from last year on reserve, so I think it might be time to give the oil treatment a try. It should be fun, mixing and stirring, trying to get the amount of oil just right, not too little, not too much. I’ll let you know how the experimentation turns out!

– 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

Lenten Reflection: A Good and Gentle Lent

February 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

cp_ashesPhilippians 4:5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

Hearing “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes were dragged across my forehand on Ash Wednesday somehow reminded me of a phrase my trainer Julie repeats to me almost every week: “Be gentle with your body.”

I get frustrated when I can’t get my ball squats deep enough and when I can’t hold my neck up in the perfect cobra stretch. I groan, scrunch my face and try to figure out how to activate the muscles deep in my back to do perfect cable rows. I’m anxious about keeping up with my weight loss plan. Like most New Yorkers, I’m in a rush and I’m not getting any younger. I want to master these introductory exercises and get on to the intense stuff.

It’s hard to be gentle when you’re trying to be tough.

“Be gentle with your body and keep breathing,” Julie says to me week after week. “Remember you are dust,” the priests say year after year. If we are made of dust stuff, we must hold ourselves gently.

Tradition tells me that Lent is a time for sacrifice and self-denial. In this harsh and frozen season, when headlines remind us of record-breaking homelessness and terror threats at shopping malls, can we can add gentleness to our Lenten tradition?

Dear Jesus, as we begin our Lenten journey, remind us of your gentleness. Show us how to be gentle with our souls and our bodies. Help us to breathe out aggression and breath in love. Breath out fear and and breath in peace.

-Chris Phillips

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!

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