Palm Sunday is the week before Easter, when Christians reenact Jesus' final entry through the gates of Jerusalem, riding a donkey upon a road paved with cloaks through an undulating, sun-dappled tunnel of palm fronds.
Each year, these palm fronds are set aside and kept. Right before the following Ash Wednesday, these now-dried and brittle palm fronds are burned. There is no ceremony, no liturgy that is followed, for these are no longer blessed, no longer symbols of joy or hope.
Ash Wednesday services are endlessly varied, from the high church services of robes, chancel choirs and pipe organs such as the one my family attended tonight, to small gatherings of believers who say a few verses, speak a few words and spend a little time in silence.
But in every service the congregation steps forward and the priest or pastor dips her thumb into a plain bowl of ashes and makes the sign of the cross on each one's forehead.
This is no cross of triumph, no gold necklace. This cross is gritty and dirty. It's not shaped right, and many times you can't see the whole thing. From more than a few feet it just looks like a smudge. This is our cross of shame, our shame and sorrow.
My family stepped forward and knelt before the altar. The priest drew the ash cross upon us all in turn, speaking to us in turn. To me he said Brother, to my daughter he said Sister, to my son, my son! Oh God, he's only a baby! To my son who cannot escape the destiny of all humans he said Brother, to my wife he said Sister, and to us all he saidRemember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return
And that was it. We left the kneeling bench literally wearing our guilt and shame upon our heads. Tonight we were all told that we will die and our bodies will waste away to be eventually recycled into the earth itself. God offered us, all of us, immortality in the beginning, and we rejected it. We chose the path of death.
Does God offer a way of redemption? Yes, and that is the other message of the ash cross we now wear. There is in fact redemption, and hope, and resurrection to new life, a life restored to the way it was all intended to be.
But not because we deserved it, or because God is obligated. It's not because people like me make all that great of disciples anyway. It's God's free choice to do all this, a choice he continues to make in spite of the things we do to one another.
That's why we have Ash Wednesday.