The purpose of this rite is to remind people of their mortality and thus the necessity for repentance.
Acquiring the Ashes
Traditionally, the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service are created by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, but most churches nowadays just purchase the ashes from a church supply house. The ashes are very inexpensive. A small package about the size of your thumb will do for all but the most humongous congregations.
A Container for the Ashes
When you are up there in front of the congregation, you can’t just hold the ashes in your hand! You have to have some sort of container. If you want to get fancy, you can buy a special ash pyx to contain the ashes. It can be quite costly, depending on the style and materials. However, a make-shift container is certainly in keeping with the penitential nature of the service. So you can forego such fancy stuff and just use a custard dish or some other small container to hold the ashes. Make sure the container is wider than it is tall, or you might have difficulty reaching in with your thumb to get the ashes.
Before the Service
Obviously the ashes are quite messy, and they won’t stick to a person’s forehead without some help. If you use the ashes by themselves, you’ll have ashes everywhere except where you want them. I have experimented, and I think the best thing to do is to put the ashes in the container you intend to use in the service, then add enough olive oil to make a sort of slurry. Do this right before the service begins. With olive oil, you will find that the ashes are very easy to apply and your congregation will find that it is very easy to wipe it off their foreheads without getting ashes all over their hands and clothing.
Don’t forget to put a soapy wet washcloth in a dish and conceal it in your pulpit. Put a small hand towel or paper towel next to it.
Imposing the Ashes
At some point in the service, everyone is standing in line in the aisle, and the first person is piously standing in front of you waiting to receive the ashes. Here’s what to do:
- Dip your right thumb into the container, just touching the surface of the ashes so that the edge of your thumb is black.
- Draw a cross on the person’s forehead with your thumb. It will probably come out looking like a plus sign.
- Say “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” which comes from Genesis 3:19, or words to that effect. Say the same thing for each person.
- The person does not need to respond, but if they say “amen,” cities will not sink into the sea.
- The person immediately returns to their seat, and it is the next person’s turn.
You should be able to go through a large number of people rather quickly. When everyone who wants ashes has received them, go back to your pulpit and wash and dry your hands. Then you will be able to conduct the rest of the service without smearing ashes on everything.
Where to Get Supplies
If you can’t find these items locally, you can purchase ash pyxes and palm ashes from Cokesbury. You can find a custard dish in your kitchen cabinet or a grocery store.