Homemade Lye Soap
by Stewart’s Crafts


Ash Wednesday and Soap-making

The phone rang recently and a conversation began with a delightful new friend.  Pastor Sandra called to ask questions about the soap-making process and how it involved ashes.  As we talked, it amazed both of us that so many steps in the soap-making process were illustrative of Our Savior’s sacrifice to cleanse us.  She captured it so well, and shared it with her congregation on Ash Wednesday.

Please use her beautiful sermon with your congregation; however, acknowledgement must be given to this website and to Rev. Dr. Sandra Ellis-Killian, to whom all copyrights are reserved.


Ash Wednesday

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58:1-12 1 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God:  they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
3 ¶ Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?  Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
4 Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness:  ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
8 ¶ Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily:  and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.
9 Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.  If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:
11 And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones:  and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places:  thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
51:1-17 To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bath-sheba. 1 Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness:
according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions:
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done this evil in thy sight:
that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest,
and be clear when thou judgest.
5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity;
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts:
and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me to hear joy and gladness;
that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all mine iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence;
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;
and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways;
and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation:
and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips;
and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it:
thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
2 Corinthians
5:20b-6:10 20b . . . we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Chapter 6 1 We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.
2 (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee:  behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)
3 Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed:
4 But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses,
5 In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings;
6 By pureness, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned,
7 By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left,
8 By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report:  as deceivers, and yet true;
9 As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed;
10 As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
6:1-6, 16-21 1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them:  otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.  Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret:  and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 ¶ And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are:  for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.  Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

16 ¶ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance:  for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.  Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret:  and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
19 ¶ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Ambler, Pennsylvania
Rev. Dr. Sandra Ellis-Killian

Know what this is?  SOAP.

Know what it’s made of?  ASHES.

This is going to be an odd sort of sermon as together we explore some very rich images for Ash Wednesday meditation to use throughout our Lenten journey together.

You have your Ash Wednesday card, on which you may as usual choose to receive the ashes, with three sides of blank space in case, as we go, you want to list a few associations, make a note or two to use in your Lenten meditation this season.

Now, to the SOAP.  Anyone conversant with pre-industrialized farm life knows how we USED to make soap.  It’s made from ashes, over which water is poured to make lye.  The lye is combined with some form of oil in a process called saponification, or soap-making.

Once hardened and cured, the soap is ready for use, to clean bodies, babies, laundry, dishes, animals, floors, tools & utensils, toys, or anything else, and a lot of things on which you can’t use detergents.

Now, isn’t this curious?  Here we have Ash Wednesday when we apply the burnt ashes from the Palms of previous Palm Sundays, with the words that remind us we are dust and to dust we return; ashes that remind us of the refuse, the dirt, the grime that is sin, that is the fallen world we live in turned into a cleansing agent.  How very curious indeed.

In fact this soap is perfect for washing off the ashes we will receive tonight.  The ashes that are the sign and symbol of our mortality, of our acknowledgment of our mortality, of our sin and our confession of our sin, become part of the cleansing, renewing, purifying process.

I intended to hold forth tonight on the themes of purification, the work of penitence, the cleansing power of God’s great grace; but my work got easier in an unexpected conversation with the woman who made this soap.

You see, this isn’t ordinary soap, the brand name, mass-produced kind we’re more familiar with that sits in most of our soap dishes at home.  Those bar soaps are petroleum products.  They are essentially detergents.  The glycerin has been removed from the oil used in the saponification process, which is why, especially in winter, our skin is so dry and often irritated.  This soap, on the other hand, as are most lye soaps made according to the old recipes, is handmade in cottage industries.  I found a source on the internet and ordered it for tonight’s service.  Each one of us will leave tonight marked with ashes, and taking with us a chunk of this soap, made from ashes.

Now, let me tell you about the conversation I had.  The woman who makes this soap is a Southerner in Georgia, and a devout Christian whose regional and religious language is beloved and familiar to me.  When I told her what the soap was for, that it would be used in our Ash Wednesday service tonight, she was very pleased.

Then in the sweetest, gentlest soft voice with her beautiful North Georgia drawl, she said, “Well, you know there’s a lot more you might want to know.”  Now I’m going to tell you what she told me about saponification, about how you make the old original lye soap from ashes, and I’m going to ask you as we go what you see in it

Here’s the recipe for this lye soap:

Start with ashes.  What do the ashes symbolize?  Dirt and death.  Sin and mortality.  When ashes get into things (as for instance when your dog sneezes while you’re cleaning out the fireplace, as has happened to us), you can’t get them out.

But the ashes themselves can undergo metamorphosis, and they do in soap making.

Ashes are collected and cooled, then stored in a wooden barrel (hollow log, even) with a spout at the bottom.

Add water.  Technique:  pour from the top very, very slowly, very steadily over the ashes.

Let it flow through, and out of the spout at the bottom.  During this process, the water reacts chemically with the ashes, picking up the potassium to produce potassium hydroxide.  What does the water call to mind?  [Water = baptism.]

In this process something very interesting happens:  the ashes are black, the water is clear, but the lye is RED.  What comes out of the mix of ashes and water, of death and dirt with baptism flows red a rusty red color.  What does the color call to mind?  Blood

The lye is then taken to make the soap, but the spent ashes still have a use as Fertilizer!  They are taken to the garden to nurture new growth.

Now, the lye water itself is an alkali very strong by itself it can burn you.  However, when you combine it with the right amount of oil or fat, there is another chemical reaction called saponification and the lye together with the oil or tallow becomes SOAP.

You can mix lye water with any kind of oil.  In the South in times past, usually rendered animal fat was used, sometimes mutton tallow.  So there is the red lye, the fat of the Lamb, blended to a bearable mixture, the cure for all the ways we get dirty and need to get clean again.  The lye made from the ashes is stirred for a long time with the mutton tallow, until the chemical process is complete.  So:  here we have a reminder of the Lamb, but it’s still not quite ready to use.

The mixture must sit still for about 2 days.  Then it can be cut, but must then sit on the shelf to cure for 3 weeks before you can touch it and use it.  As Linda Stewart, the soap maker, described this part of the process, she caught her breath.  She said, “It’s like 2 days in the tomb, then Christ rises on the third.  But at first he must tell them not to touch him, then, later, he comes through the closed doors and tells Thomas to touch him.”

And there’s still more.  All these handcrafted soaps come in lots of varieties:  oatmeal, plain, herbal, etc.  The one I bought for us, for St. John’s, is lavender.  This is what you see in the soap little shreds and chunks of the lavender, the familiar wildflower (Agastache foeniculum) or, lavender HYSSOP.  Where do we hear that word, hyssop?

This particular lavender hyssop is a varietal native to North America, familiar to Native Americans who knew and prized it for many uses, uses that are, again, very curiously congruent with Biblical uses of hyssop:  its fragrance & beauty, its properties of physical and spiritual healing and its preventive and defensive effects.

Cheyenne Indians made tea from this plant, which they believed helped a “dispirited heart.”

The Chippewa believed that lavender hyssop offered protection from diseases and enemies.  They used lavender hyssop essence in exactly the way described in the Psalm:  it was believed to be a potent cleansing agent for guilt.

That’s the chunky stuff in the soap:  lavender hyssop hyssop, the Biblical botanical sin-cleanser.

Linda Stewart, the woman who made this soap and tells the story of soap making, is at this very moment praying for us and for our Ash Wednesday service.  After you receive the ashes tonight, you’ll also receive a small bar of this soap to take with you.

When you wash with it, pray from the Psalm:

Remove my sins with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be purer than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.

Meditate on the Word of God that comes through the prophet Isaiah in the First Lesson, and from Christ in the Gospel Lesson.  Both texts call out the hypocrisy of rituals that mimic, but are empty of, genuine righteousness.  We need to learn to see the world through God’s eyes.  That is the renewing, reorienting, cleansing work of Lent.

What helps you do that?

Well, what gets in the way of it?

Wash it away.  What isn’t working any more?  What habits in thought or life or relationship are shrinking your soul?  What toxins, what contaminants need to be purged?  What in your schedule, in your priorities, in what you brood over, keeps God at a distance?  Lent is clean up time.

In penitence, we enter the season of Lent through the Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday is the 3rd most solemn day of the Christian Year, after Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  While those mournful services of Holy Week are full of the suffering and death of Christ, the Ash Wednesday service is full of our mortality, for which only Christ’s suffering and death are the cure.

Remove my sins with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be purer than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.

Think what you want washed away.  Forgiven.  What you want to be free from.  God’s love lathers you with grace, baptismal waters rinse you free, clear, clean, newborn.

Let our Lent be plenty soapy.  So much goes into cleaning us up, and all that’s in this pure and natural soap reminds us of it all:  there are the ashes, the grime and residue of sin we can’t get rid of, the reason and the sign of our mortality, to which God joined God’s own being and became incarnate in Christ.  God in Christ became ashes WITH US:  Emmanuel.

Then these ashes, soaked in baptismal waters, flow out red like the blood of the Lamb, shed for the forgiveness of sin that made us ashes.  Add to that balm of Gilead, the healing fat of the Lamb patiently blended with that harsh red lye, slowly turning a caustic agent to a soothing soap, then mixed with fragrant, purifying hyssop.  Next the 2 days of death in the tomb to rise with Christ on the third.  That’s the story that is metaphorically packed into this soap, ready now and sweet smelling to make us clean and pure again, as often as we need it.

This is our Lenten prayer, our Lenten washing:

Remove my sins with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be purer than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.

The soap is the grace to remake us, to restore us.  Soap and water for souls in ashes.