Ashes to Ashes: Burning as Ritual

Roadside Shrine to the Virgin Mary, Tuscany, Italy
Roadside Shrine to the Virgin Mary, Tuscany, Italy

“Regardless of your faith it can be a cleansing experience to allow the past to burn away in fire and say a prayer.”

I’m not talking about the song “Ashes to Ashes” from David Bowie (though I do love him), but what I am talking about is the tradition of Ash Wednesday and the power of burning in ritual and release. The concept of “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is spoken in burial ceremonies and originates in Genesis. Humanity has used fire and ash in ceremony for thousands of years.

While I’m no longer a practicing Catholic I have to admit that, as a girl raised in the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday has always held a sense of mystery to me. As a child I remember leaving school in the late morning to go to mass and have a black smudge christened onto my forehead. I say smudge because it rarely resembled a cross. Perhaps the priest’s thumbs were too thick to make such delicate lines. No matter how badly it itched, it had to stay on all day. The act is meant to be a repentance to God, marking the first day of Lent, and can be received by anyone, not just members of the church.

The Ash is traditionally collected from a burning of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches. If I had to pick a favorite Catholic celebration it would be Palm Sunday. I guess my affinity for plants was active even then. I’d take the long palm fronds home with me and hang them in my room, keeping them long past the days when they were dried to a crisp. I don’t recall ever burning them for my own ceremony. Eventually my mom would have me toss them into the woods.

Burning items from the past and releasing the ash into sacred ground is a powerful ritual in many cultures. Letters, photos, prints and fabrics are easily burned in small quantities (with proper fire safety precautions taken). Regardless of your faith it can be a cleansing experience to allow the past to burn away in fire and say a prayer. Release of the old opens the door for new beginnings, and can shift the dynamics of your universe.

Think of pieces of the past that might be lying around in the clutter of your house and weighing you down. One of my most cherished writers, Maya Angelou talks about the power of words, “Words are things, I’m convinced. You must be careful about the words you use, or the words you allow to be used in your house… Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words… They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.” Written words hold so much weight. Images are just as powerful. Are there words or pictures you need to let go of, to release, to move forward?

Roadside shrine to Mary in Ireland
Roadside shrine to Mary in Ireland

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6 Replies to “Ashes to Ashes: Burning as Ritual”

  1. Burning away things from my own past relationship was extremely helpful too. I even whisper screamed into a candle. I guess a loud scream would have worked as well. It was very releasing after so much anger has built up over the situation. I agree burning that away clears the way for a better day and future.

  2. The power of words. mmm yep, maybe used a few to many at times. Working on it. Duck tape, I need duck tape.

    1. Its OK Rose, Duck tape is awesome.

      Excellent, and ohhhh so very true article. Beautifully written. Reminds me of my Mom and Dad (the Catholics who raised me).

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