Around this time each year, without pomp or ceremony, the Rev. Ceasar Donanzan takes the leftover palm fronds from Palm Sunday, and with a parishioner or two breaks them up, places them in a metal pan and sets them afire. In an hour the fronds have burned to coarse ashes.
Tomorrow, in an Ash Wednesday ceremony marking the start of Lent, Donanzan will dip his thumb into those ashes and brush them onto the foreheads of his parishioners at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, saying, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
That ritual of penitence will be repeated around the world in Roman Catholic and some Episcopal and Lutheran churches as the faithful begin to prepare themselves for Easter.Some will also observe the Lenten season by committing themselves to personal sacrifices.
Ashes were first used as a symbol of penitence sometime before the 8th century, when grievous sinners repented by "wearing sack-cloth and putting ashes on their heads," according to Rev. Thomas Sullivan, professor of religion at Catholic University. "Between the 8th and 10th centuries all the faithful began wearing ashes on their foreheads at the beginning of Lent as a sign of humility and penitence."
Today the practice remains so widely followed that priests at both St. Matthew's Cathedral and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception expect to go through several pounds of ashes tomorrow.
The ways churches acquire their ashes run the gamut from Donanzan's personal touch to variations on the grand old theme of American free enterprise.
At some churches, such as St. Ann's Catholic Church in Northwest Washington, the janitor performs the task.
At Bethany Lutheran Church in Suitland, the Rev. Clarence Solberg found he could avoid smoking up his home by burning the fronds in his fireplace instead of his kitchen. Then like some clergy he sifts the ashes "so there's just fine dust left" and then puts them in an old silver box.
Following his usual tradition, the Rev. Henry Breul of St. Thomas Episcopal Church made his ashes in the church kitchen in a cake pan. "I let them cool for an hour; they have a lot of sap and get very hot," he explained. Breul refines the mixture by sifting it through a strainer with a spoon.
At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring the Rev. E. Carl Lyon will burn the palms on the altar during tomorrow's liturgy.
The Rev. Jesse Anderson of Episcopal Chapel of St. Philip in Southeast Washington made his own ashes until a few years ago "but it made such a mess I began buying them." Now Anderson simply orders a $1.25 baggie of ashes from a mail order company in Florida.
Nativity Catholic parish in Burke, Va., buys ashes for $6.50 a bag from Palm Gardens in Texas, which supplies ashes to more than 1,000 churches according to Ginsbach, who heads the company's ash division.
"For less than a penny per person" a clergyman can buy "finer, more talcum-like powder than he can make himself," Ginsbach said. "It's a limited market, but they love the convenience and each year we get more customers."