Students get close-up on making of Ash Wednesday |

Students get close-up on making of Ash Wednesday

It seems like a grim scene – dying palm branches swallowed up in orange flames, reduced to powdery black ash in a few fleeting moments.

But amid the somber tradition of burning branches and brushing the ash into a cross shape on worshippers’ foreheads during today’s Ash Wednesday services, the Rev. Sylvester Kwiatkowski sees glimpses of hope.

“It’s a sign of our mortality,” said Kwiatkowski, who led a group of middle-school students at Mount St. Mary’s Academy Tuesday in burning fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The ashes they produced will be the ones used in several Ash Wednesday services at St. Patrick’s Church in Grass Valley today.

While Ash Wednesday and the Lent season that follows in the 40 days leading to Easter are often considered Catholic traditions, mainline Protestant churches increasingly are taking part, attracted by the rich, centuries-old symbolism.

To name a few: Three services are scheduled at Trinity Episcopal in Nevada City, and Sierra Presbyterian and Peace Lutheran also mark the holy day. Nevada City United Methodist Church plans to observe Lent, although they won’t have an Ash Wednesday service this year.

Lent traditionally is a time of fasting and preparation for Easter. At Trinity, however, it entails more than simply giving up soda or chocolate for a few weeks.

“It’s not just a time of giving up things. It’s a time to embrace other practices, to add something,” said Trinity Episcopal Secretary Alison MacKenzie – perhaps more time in prayer, or a Bible study. “It’s not just deprivation.”

Kwiatkowski gets animated when talking about the season.

“This is the peak of our Christian faith,” he said. “It’s the redemption of the whole world.”

Unlike the Christmas season, where the holiday’s religious significance takes a secondary role to shopping, Lent is largely undisturbed by marketers.

“It’s much more deep than Christmas, which became more commercial,” Kwiatkowski said. “Lent is much more spiritual and serious.”

The ashes used in the ritual can be procured from church supply companies, but Kwiatkowski wanted to make it more personal this year by burning palm fronds at the school. He asked parishioners to contribute palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday service, which some families had displayed in their homes through the year “as a reminder of God’s presence,” he said.

Ash Wednesday is imbued with reminders of death and conflict between good and evil. The priest tells parishioners during the ritual, “For you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

But other parts of the custom – including the cross-shaped pattern of the ashes – point to the Christian belief that the suffering and sin of the world will end.

“The cross reminds that we can be restored, our sinful nature can be restored, and we can be healed,” Kwiatkowski said. “The cross is our hope.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

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