Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ashes: Burn or Buy?

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette finds an intriguing angle on this Ash Wednesday. Apparently, there are churches out there that buy their ashes from a local company as opposed to burning their own palms.....

The Rev. Thomas Sparacino, pastor of St. Mary, burns palm fronds with the help of the church's maintenance man. If it's a large batch, they do it at the maintenance man's home, but they burn small amounts in the barbecue on the rooftop patio of St. Mary's.

It's worth the effort because "it gives people the understanding that we've lived through a whole year of celebrating -- and it's also a way of disposing of the blessed palms properly. But, even more, it's to uphold the traditions of the church," he said.

Burning the palms requires patience -- they smolder rather than burst into flame, he said. He removes strings by forcing the ash through a kitchen strainer, then buries the remains in his mother's garden.

About 200 churches each year obtain ashes through the Diocesan Purchasing Commission in East Carnegie, a Catholic supplier that is open to all denominations.

There, Shrove Tuesday -- the day before Ash Wednesday -- is marked by panicked calls from clergy.

"They can't find their ashes, although they know they've got them somewhere. The secretary was supposed to order them and it didn't happen. It happens every year," said Judy Pearce, buyer for the Diocesan Purchasing Commission.

The ashes, from a Texas Palm nursery that also supplies fronds for Palm Sunday, are one of the great bargains in church goods. A bag of ashes for 100 people costs $3.50; a bag for 1,000 costs $12.75. Given the large size of Catholic parishes, some go through several of the largest bags each year.

"Plus, a lot of the Catholic priests like to put a great, big cross on people's foreheads. I think that makes them go through ashes a little faster," she said.

The Rev. Warren Murrman teaches the history and practice of Ash Wednesday to future Catholic priests at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe. He isn't opposed to buying.

Burning is traditional, and it's good to accompany it with prayers, he said. But it's also messy, time-consuming and likely to contaminate the ashes with burned paper or wood used to start the fire. Commercial ash comes from ovens that incinerate the palms alone, he said.

Ashes are a universal symbol, Father Murrman said.

"Many cultures use ashes in various ceremonies to indicate a consciousness that we are going to die. At the same time, there is also a consciousness that from ashes we are reborn, that there is a kind of renewal through fire," he said.

I should be out getting my ashes now, but it's been delayed thanks to all the e.mails on this "Patriarch of the West" question.....