Every year in the weeks before Ash Wednesday, we will hear announcements to donate last year’s palms for the creation of this year’s ashes. The burning of the palms tangibly connects us to the graces of the previous Palm Sunday, where we welcome Jesus our King with shouts of: "Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest” (Mt 21:9).
We begin our turning back to the Lord with a physical remembrance of how good God has been to us in the past by marking ourselves with the ashes of last year’s graces. In recycling the palms, we connect ourselves to Holy Week, where God liberates us from sin and division through his death and resurrection. The history of God’s saving grace, our salvation, is never far from us. It is with this confidence in a God whose willingness to die for us that we recall—not only on Good Friday but also every time we celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass—as we enter Holy Week.
If using old palms for ashes is one way we can connect to the way God works, it is good for us to think about how we might be more intentional in connecting to nature. “Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict XVI before him, has eloquently drawn the connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and care for the environment. All creation gives glory to God, and journeys toward divinization, toward union with the Creator” (The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, no. 40). There are many people and places in our Church trying to care for creation. One place that comes to mind for me is the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in southern Ontario.
The Centre has dedicated much of their land to the restoration of an old-growth forest. The Jesuit Centre knows that the restoring of the land connects people to the land, a land which our creator God has made. It connects us to our own creation, our own mortality. As we hear when the old palms that have been burned to ashes are crossed on our foreheads, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
We have a sure hope that death is not the end. The desire of our loving Creator is for us to be completely united with him in Eternity. He loved us so much that “He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Blessed indeed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
Reflection Question: How is Jesus inviting me into a renewed hope for eternal life today? What kind of obstacles stand in the way of my hope? How does Jesus want to help me overcome those obstacles?
Action Point: This Palm Sunday, bring your palm branch home and place it somewhere in your home to remind you of your call to give glory to God. Then, next year, intentionally bring your palm back to your parish to be included among the palms to be burned for Ash Wednesday.
Prayer: Prayer for Generosity (attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola)
Lord, teach me to be generous, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to look for any reward, save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
Fr. Paul J. Shelton, SJ, a national Eucharistic preacher, is the vocation director for the Midwest Jesuits. For more information on joining the Jesuits visit beajesuit.org.