Ashes out of a Christmas Tree


One of the fun traditions of liturgical churches is the burning of palms (from the prior year’s Palm Sunday) to create ashes for Ash Wednesday. The transition from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday is a “Back to the Future” moment in liturgical time, where we take a step back from prior celebration, moving from “Hosannas” to humility. And in the reception of ashes made from palms, we recognize too that our ability to cry “Hosanna” depends upon our humility, without which we will instead call out, “Crucify.”

This year, however, we realized that we neglected to save any palms from last year. What, then, would we use to make our ashes? In a stroke of providence, we still had our church Christmas tree, now quite dry. That we still had the Christmas tree is itself a liturgical faux pas, as full compliance would have had us burn it on Candlemas, Feb 4th. But this only goes to show that, when dealing with the traditions of men, two wrongs do sometimes make a right!

And so as I burned the pine needles from the Christmas tree to make ashes for our service, I contemplated a new theological metaphor. What does Christmas have to do with Ash Wednesday? In the first place, we can see that Christ was born in order to die, his Christmas already tinged with ashes. John Donne made a similar point, famously, in his 1626 Christmas sermon:

“The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and death were but one continual act, and his Christmas-day and his Good Friday, are but evening and morning of one and the same day” (John Donne, 1626).

But of course Ash Wednesday is specifically the day in which we recognize that we will die, that we were made from dust, and to dust we shall return. As such, it is also helpful, I think, to see in the dried-out Christmas tree the lovely ceremony, the pride and beauty of the world, which is inevitably fading away. For no matter its beauty, the Christmas tree dies because it is cut from its trunk, because it is removed from its vine. And indeed, if we branches, whatever our adornments, do not abide in Christ our vine, then we too will be cast out and burned. Without Christ our well of living water, we too will dry up and return to the dust without hope.

But if we are in Christ, then by his death we receive life, drawing vital sap out of his ash. Perhaps then we can see Ash Wednesday as a reminder, not only of our death, but of his death leading unto our life, of his birth giving us new birth. Christ is the ancient tree whose molten amber flows forth, delivering unto those who believe a seed of resurrection.

Peter Johnston