As the priest marks your forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, he says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15, NASB), or, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
These phrases call us to repentance, faith, and humility, which we must assume with greater resolve during the Lenten season of penance, prayer, and fasting. They remind us of our mortality — “to dust you shall return” — and what we must do to gain eternal life: repent and believe. These themes stay with us throughout the 40 days of Lent, the time of preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Let’s take a look at the significance of Ash Wednesday and what it means for the season.
We first hear about the use of ashes in the Old Testament to represent mourning, penance, and mortality. The king of Nineveh, after hearing Jonah’s preaching about conversion, sat in ashes and wore sackcloth and the whole town fasted and also wore sackcloth as a sign of their repentance (Jonah 3:5-6). In mourning after the Persian king’s decree to kill the Jewish people in the Persian Empire, Mordecai also dressed in sackcloth and wore ashes (Esther 4:1). These are just two of many instances throughout the Old Testament of this tradition.
It’s clear that the liturgical use of ashes has biblical roots and was a common practice throughout Church history. Jesus also references sackcloth and ashes in the New Testament saying, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Matthew 11:21). He said this about the places that failed to repent and believe after witnessing miracles and the good news of the Gospel.
The actual ashes that are used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the remains of palms that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the prior year. When the priest blesses the ashes, he prays over them, fumigates them with incense, and sprinkles them with holy water. We wear the ashes on our forehead as a visible sign of the cross, symbolizing Christ’s suffering and redemption of our sins. The shape of the cross reminds us our lives are as fleeting as dust and Christ’s death on the cross was just as fleeting. Death is not the end, it is the beginning of eternal life.
Lenten fasting, penance, and sacrifices were likely practiced in apostolic times, but the 40-day season was first formalized at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It is a time of repentance and cleansing not just for Catholics, but also those preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. The first connection of ashes to the beginning of Lent as the “Day of Ashes” appears in the Gregorian Sacramentary, a liturgical book used for Catholic services and Mass attributed to Pope St. Gregory I, around the eight century.
The book includes this quote from an Anglo-Saxon priest around the year 1,000 who said, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” The tradition continued throughout the Middle Ages to today.
On Ash Wednesday, and every Friday during Lent, we fast: abstaining from meat, eating only one full meal and two smaller meals that are not the equivalent of a full meal. We do this to unite ourselves, in a small way, with the fasting, suffering, and solitude Jesus experienced when he spent 40 days in the desert resisting the devil’s temptations before beginning his public ministry.
Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the remaining days of the Lenten season. It can seem dismal, but as St. Pope John Paul II explained, “Why does the Church place ashes on our foreheads today? Why does she remind us of death? Death which is the effect of sin! Why? To prepare us for Christ’s Passover. For the paschal mystery of the Redeemer of the world. Paschal mystery means what we profess in the Creed: ‘On the third day he rose again’! Yes. Today we need to hear the ‘you are dust and to dust you will return”’of Ash Wednesday, so that the definitive truth of the Gospel, the truth about the Resurrection, will unfold before us: believe in the Gospel.”
The ashes are a reminder of
our inevitable passing from this life and Christ’s own suffering and death, yet
it is hopeful, the beginning of the countdown to his resurrection at Easter —
the scene of our own redemption and Christ’s victory over death!
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