Sometimes things get so familiar to us that we stop understanding or reflecting on their deeper meaning. Each year in RCIA (adult conversion) classes I get some puzzled looks as we discuss the ritual. “What’s that all about?” some will say. There is even some revulsion expressed at having dirty ashes smeared on your forehead. I remember as a kid wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their forehead. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today I’ll admit I still don’t like it much, though I behave myself and do not rub them off!
Please forgive me, I don’t want to seem impious yet I still marvel, as a priest at how many people pack into Church to get ashes on their forehead. Even sadder, many of them don’t seem to want communion as much. In fact significant numbers walk out the door after ashes are given and do not stay for communion. I remember a certain pastor of mine responding to that by not giving Ashes until after Communion.
Most people of course who come to Mass are faithful and have their priorities straight but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems to me to unappealing and also challenging, if we really come to terms with what we are saying in receiving them. I wonder if large numbers would flock for ashes if they really knew that they were saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.
What, really do ashes signify? Perhaps a brief tour of Scripture is in order:
- Humility - Job said, You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. ”You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:3-6 Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense here. But, having encountered God he realizes that God is God and he is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God who is Being itself, who is All in All. Yes he is a son in the presence of a Father but he is not God’s equal that he might question God or put him on trial. Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance, but humility. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility when she quotes Gen 3:19 “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as she places ashes on the individual.
- A Sacramental that points to the Sacrament – A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin….For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. Number 19:9,17) This text sees ashes obtained from a burned sin offering and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13) but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin. In the same way ashes on Ash Wednesday, mixed with holy water cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament. To get ashes on Ash Wednesday and not go to confession during Lent is really to miss the point. If one’s desire to repent and to be clean, free of sin, is real then from the sacramental to the sacrament they go. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pretty pointless.
- A sign of a true change – When the news[of Ninevah's possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:6) Here too repentance is symbolized. But the symbol is not enough. Actual repentance is required. Hence the King does not just “do ashes,” he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9) Hence another option for the priest to say as he places ashes is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is what is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.
- A summons to faith and a new mind – Jesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes(Matt 11:21). Here Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith in what he said. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan) which more literally means to come to a new mind or way of thinking. The fact is that there are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our on-going challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by his grace working through Scripture and Church teaching. It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. We are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” (Romans 12:2) Hence another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he places the ashes.
So, how real are your ashes? Do you and I intend these things as we go forth or is it just a ritual, something to do because it’s “sorta neat.” Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of ashes.