History of Hymns: ‘Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes’
By C. Michael Hawn
"Sunday's Palms Are Wednesday's Ashes"
by Rae E. Whitney
The Faith We Sing, No. 2138
Sunday’s palms are Wednesday’s ashes
as another Lent begins;
thus we kneel before our Maker
in contrition for our sins.
We have marred baptismal pledges,
in rebellion gone astray;
now, returning, seek forgiveness;
grant us pardon, God, this day!*
Words © 1991 Selah Publishing Co., Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This hymn by British-born hymn writer Rae E. Whitney (b. 1927) sets the tone for the holy season of Lent. She frames the season in the incipit (the opening line) by reminding us that in the broader tradition of the church, the palms used during the Palm Sunday processional that signals the beginning of Holy Week are saved and burned. The charred palms of the previous season signal the beginning of Lent the next year and are imprinted in the shape of a cross on our forehead as a witness to our faith.
The palms, both in their natural green and charred form, offer a rich symbolism. All living things die. The words spoken at the graveside are a stark reminder of this: “Remember mortal one that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Befitting the deeper understanding of Lent, ashes are a sign of repentance and mourning. Linking the green palms of Palm Sunday to the charred palms of Ash Wednesday highlights the irony of the coming Holy Week: the week begins with palms waved in celebration of the Messiah and concludes with the Messiah hanging on a cross. For those that observe this aspect of the Christian Year, the ongoing cyclic nature is pivotal to the experience. Ash Wednesday connects us to the Palm Sunday of the previous year and reminds us of the coming of the next Palm Sunday and the beginning of the next Holy Week. Ash Wednesday places us, the penitent worshipper on our knees, in the center of the drama on the journey to the cross. Rae Whitney captures all of this in the provocative first line of her hymn – the biblical narrative, symbolism of the church, the irony of the green and charred palms, and our role in the drama.
The second line of the opening stanza underscores the inherent penitence of the ritual by stating that “we kneel before our Maker” – a posture of obeisance and contrition. The third line ties the receiver of the ashes to their baptismal vows. Those vows included the “Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith”:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins? . . .
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? . . .
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? (The UM Hymnal, 40)
Maintaining these vows is indeed a tall order and it is likely that we have failed to maintain them. This leads us to the last line of the first stanza – the petition for pardon.
The remaining two stanzas focus on a primary offence, our failure “to love our neighbor.” These stanzas form a mini-sermon on our failure to live up to the second of the twin commandments, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27) At the end of stanza two, the hymnwriter suggests that the restoration of our relationship with our neighbor should be the focus of our Lenten observance: “may the yielding of our failings [to love our neighbor] be our Lenten offerings.”
The final stanza delves more deeply into the implications of failure to love our neighbor. This includes our tendency to be “hasty to judge others” and that our action “demonstrates our inner greed.” Evidence of our lack of love for our neighbor and our greed is then, in a powerful extension, evident in how “we have wasted earth’s resources.” The final line of the hymn is a petition, “make new hearts within us, Lord!” – a clear reference to the psalm of the day, Psalm 51, specifically verse 10, “Create in me a pure heart, O God.”
One could make the case that Rae Whitney has effectively updated the classic Ash Wednesday hymn, “Lord, who throughout these forty days.” (The UM Hymnal, No. 269) This is true, but does not fully capture the poignancy and power of her verse. Claudia Hernaman’s classic text is perfectly shaped and captures the meaning of Ash Wednesday and the coming season of Lent. It should continue to be sung. At the same time, its later 19th-century Victorian restraint allows us as 21st-century worshipers the luxury of distancing ourselves from the fuller significance of this season. Whitney’s hymn, derived in part from the theological understandings and liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), speaks with a directness from which we cannot escape.
Rae E. Whitney (née Phillips) was born in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England and received a B.A. from the University of Bristol (1948) and a Certificate of Education (1949). She was a teacher of English and Religious Education (1949-1958). Her earlier faith heritage was Baptist, serving as a lay preacher and Sunday School teacher. She committed to the Church of England in 1956. While visiting Rome, she met Clyde E. Whitney (d. 1992), a rector of an Episcopal parish in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Following their marriage in 1960, she moved to Nebraska in 1961 where she was a partner in his ministry for three decades serving as a licensed lay reader, chalice bearer, and educator. She continues to live in Nebraska where she was honored with the event “Hope, Joy, and Wonder: A Festival of Hymns by Rae E. Whitney” at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha (April 2009). (Watson and Young, “Rae E. Whitney,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology) Her hymns have been published in collections beyond the United States including Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and Hong Kong. More recently, she was awarded the Bishop’s Cross during the Diocese of Nebraska’s Annual Council in October 2016. Rae composed a new hymn for the sesquicentennial celebration of the Nebraska Diocese entitled “Sing God’s praise, Episcopalians” observed in January 2018.
“Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes” was published initially in her first collection of hymns, With Joy Our Spirits Sing: The Hymns of Rae E. Whitney (Pittsburgh: Selah Publishing Co., 1995). Since then three additional volumes have been published by Selah, Fear Not, Little Flock: Hymns of Rae E. Whitney, Vol. 1 (2006), Fear Not, Little Flock, Vol. 2 (2007), and Under the Fig Tree: More Hymns and a Few Poems (2007).
David W. Music, noted hymnologist and professor of music at Baylor University, notes that one characteristic of Whitney’s hymn writing is her extensive citation of Scripture. She often alludes to Scripture or even retells Bible stories and other biblical narratives. Another feature of her hymns is a striking incipit that “grab[s] the readers’ and singers’ attention and make[s] them want to find out what is coming next.” (Music, “Hymn Writers,” n.p.) He also notes that she employs a rich language that creatively uses “paradox, simile, metaphor, and vivid imagery.”
In the doctoral thesis, “Hope, Joy, and Wonder: The Hymns of Rae E. Whitney” (2010), Marty Wheeler Burnett summarizes focus of Whitney’s hymns within the Episcopal tradition and beyond:
Whitney’s hymns bear the influence of decades of change within the Episcopal Church and the American cultural landscape. Her particular interests in the roles of women in the church and society, mission, and ecumenism have provided foundational material for her writing. In her lifetime, Whitney has witnessed remarkable changes in the Episcopal Church – a transformation from the complete exclusion of women from liturgical roles to a modern period when women’s ministries have been acknowledged and welcomed. As a result, many of her hymns include women and feminine imagery; several hymns focus specifically on the ordination of women. Hymns with themes of stewardship of God’s creation, social justice, and peace are also identified and related to Whitney’s life experiences. (Dissertation Abstract, n.p.)
Marty Wheeler Burnett, “Hope, Joy, and Wonder: The Hymns of Rae E. Whitney.” D.Min. Thesis, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, 2010. https://dspace.sewanee.edu/handle/11005/292
David W. Music, “Hymn Writers: With Joy Her Spirit Sings, The Music of Rae E. Whitney,” Reformed Worship (111). https://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2014/joy-her-spirit-sings
J. Richard Watson and Carlton R. Young. "Rae E. Whitney." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed September 3, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/rae-e-whitney.
Rae E. Whitney, With Joy Our Spirits Sing: The Hymns of Rae E. Whitney (Pittsburgh, 1995).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.