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From palms to ashes

Mardi Gras is a time to eat until our heart's content as we prepare for the penitential season of Lent. It's a familiar tradition among Catholics and those who have no connection to the faith.

Another longstanding Mardi Gras tradition — though not understood as well secularly — is the burning of palms to be used on Ash Wednesday.

St. Gerard Majella School in Kirkwood was among numerous archdiocesan schools that withstood the bitter cold and piles of snow to burn palms outside the church Feb. 17. Associate pastor Father Raymond Buehler led students in prayer as he ignited a fire pit filled with dried palms, which parishioners received last year on Palm Sunday.

After the fire, the ashes were placed into little bowls for distribution. At an early-morning Ash Wednesday Mass, the ashes were blessed and sprinkled with holy water, giving them their paste-like quality.

"These ashes will be used to make a cross on your forehead," Father Buehler told the students. "We should wear our crosses proudly because they remind us that we are followers of Jesus."

Students also took signs decorated with the word "Alleluia" and placed them in a small trunk — "burying" the word until Easter.

"Alleluia means 'praise God' in the Hebrew language," Father Buehler explained. "This is the last day we hear the word said or sung until Easter."

The tradition of using blessed ashes dates to the Old Testament. In the Book of Numbers, the ashes of a heifer are used as a purification offering: "For anyone who is thus unclean, ashes shall be taken from the burnt purification offering, and spring water will be poured on them from a vessel" (Numbers 19:17).

Ashes of palms have a place of significance, said Father Buehler. The palm is a sign of victory; after all, palm fronds were used when the people rejoiced as Jesus made His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

When a Catholic receives a blessed palm on Palm Sunday, "it becomes dried and withered over the course of the year," said Father Nicholas Smith, director of the archdiocesan Office of Sacred Worship. "It's deprived of water and other nutrients — it's a metaphor for our spiritual lives, which become dried and withered because of sin. The ashes then become a sign of repentance and sign of our need for what Jesus accomplished, which really began on Palm Sunday."

In an earlier era, ash was considered the principal agent in some fertilizers, Father Smith noted. "Just as fertilizer is necessary to stir up growth, so too, that ash serves as a way of stirring us up anew in Christ." 

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