First Person

Ash Wednesday’s beautiful burning ritual

Pastor Amy McCreath of Watertown’s Church of the Good Shepherd favors the old-fashioned way of creating supplies for this day.

Pastor Amy McCreath, of The Church of The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Watertown.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Pastor Amy McCreath, of The Church of The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Watertown.

This sounds strange, but Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days. We get to tell the truth, about THE FACT THAT WE’RE DUST, that our lives will end, and that even if we try our best, we are going to mess up. People bring back the palms they got on Palm Sunday [last year and then] stuck behind a mirror or on a mantel. On the SUNDAY BEFORE ASH WEDNESDAY, after the service, we invite anybody who wants to come outside. We have this setup called the “holy hibachi.” It’s basically a little hibachi that has stones around it. We say A PRAYER OVER THE PALMS AND WE BURN THEM. It’s a bit of a messy process. I put them through a sieve and then use a mortar and pestle to grind them up. You want them to be really fine, because you don’t want to scratch people’s foreheads. I then mix in some chrism, usually olive oil that has been blessed and we use at baptisms. The first time I saw it done was like 14 years ago, at the church I served in Milwaukee. I think [those congregations that buy ashes online] miss a huge opportunity to LIVE THEIR FAITH. There’s something that’s lost when they come in a sterile form, neatly packaged. There’s something lost about the mess and the risk. When I was in college, I went to an Ash Wednesday service and the person in front of me in line was BROOKE SHIELDS. That was stunning to me that she was going to hear the same words I was; both of us were being CALLED TO FACE OUR MORTALITY. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”     — As told to Elliott Davis

Interview has been edited and condensed.