Feb. 22 is Ash Wednesday, and for those who can, finding an Ash Wednesday service is a great way to mark the start of Lent. The ritual of receiving ashes on the forehead dates to the Middle Ages but contains symbolism rooted in the Old Testament, when ashes signified mourning, mortality and penance.
In one of the many examples of ashes being referenced in the Old Testament, the King of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s call for conversion and repentance by covering himself in sackcloth and sitting in a pile of ashes. That took place in the fifth century B.C., prefiguring Christ’s words to the people of those towns who had heard his message of salvation and witnessed his miracles yet still refused to repent. Christ chastised those towns when he said, “If the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (Luke 10:13).
The early church perpetuated the symbolism of ashes in connection with penance, and by the eighth century, a custom had developed in which people facing death would lie upon sackcloth and have ashes sprinkled upon them. A priest would then bless them with holy water and say, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” Afterwards, the priest would ask, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgement?” The answer for believers would invariably be “yes,” because they understood the need to turn to God with humble and contrite hearts.
Also in the eighth century, the Gregorian Sacramentary references a Day of Ashes marking the beginning of Lent, and a quote from the Anglo-Saxon priest Aelfric dating to around 1000 A.D. reads, “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.”
So, we see that the practice of using ashes to signify the start of Lent evolved from a long tradition. Today, we get our ashes from the burned palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which symbolizes repentance because the palms were used to welcome Christ. By marking ourselves with ashes of burned palms, we acknowledge that we have fallen short of fully welcoming Christ into our lives.
The history of Ash Wednesday helps to shed light on why Lent is a time for reflection upon our standing before God. Christ called for repentance, fulfilling the call of the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. He did this because he understood people had to renounce the world to fully welcome him into their lives. But Christ also understood that we needed help in the effort to prepare ourselves for the perfect love God wants to shower upon us. So, we repent not because we expect to earn our way into a state of grace, but simply to do our part to be prepared to receive Christ’s selfless gift.
Therefore, we humble ourselves with ashes to begin our preparations for the celebration of the coming of Christ into our lives at Easter time. The ashes remind us of our humanity as imperfect people in need of salvation. And as with so many things in our faith, humility opens a window onto the wisdom of God so that we can be transformed by his tremendous love for us.
For a free copy of The Christophers’ THE GIFT OF RECONCILIATION, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or email . Fr. Dougherty is on the Christophers’ board of directors.
Maryknoll Father Edward M. Dougherty (CNS photo)