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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A summons to faith and a new mindJesus 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.

6 Responses

  1. Brian Z. says:

    Thank you Father. My wife and I were just discussing the significance of ashes. We both grew up with the idea that ‘It’s what you do on Ash Wednesday” or, “it’s how you know the Catholics”. A church around the corner from our home has a service at noon and I am going to take my son. Not sure he gets them, but I want him to see his dad get them. I have changed alot in the past few years and I am always asking God to be a greater part of my life and help me be a better husband and father. From your blog it seems the ashes both symbolize my desire to repent (even more) and hopefully, as a sacramental provide me with the grace to do so. It’s funny, I started saying, in my prayers, to the Lord not too long ago that, “I am nothing, my heart, my soul, my mind and my body all belong to you my Lord, please guide me and help me to be a better father and husband.” The words came to me one day when I realized that, in the past, I looked to mankind for true happiness, to give me that promotion, or pay raise etc. Once I turned myself to God and asked him to take the helm so to speak that is when life turned around. So, one day it dawned on me, I do not belong to mankind or even myself, but to God and I am nothing without him because all that I am is because of him.

  2. kirsten says:

    i grew up Episcopalian.. we do ashes also. i left that church and “traveled religions” seeing various traditions and beliefs, settling for a time here, or there, but always sure that “home” was somewhere else.

    two years ago this coming Easter i was received in to full communion with the Catholic Church. One of the biggest things about the Church is its belief in repentance and confession. I can assure you my first confession was something i dreaded, being an adult with far too many sins, and new to the church.. well you can imagine! Now? i am blessed to belong to a church that offers confession twice daily, every day except Sunday. I have never seen it “un used”.

    the places that i have been that have a lack of confession among the parish… are the places that offer it infrequently. It is truly one of the great treasures of the church.

  3. Terence Filmore says:

    A unique aspect of Ash Wednesday is that it is the only time we can choose to self-identify as Catholics in public. Aside from being seen entering or leaving church, I cannot think of another situation in which we announce to the world “I am a Catholic” (with respect to those other denominations that follow the practice; I think most people assume its just Catholics that do it). I wish more of us would go to a morning Mass and wear the ashes all day. With the strong emphasis from some that religion should be confined to the private sphere, it can be refreshing to display one’s faith publicly. As my priest said this morning, seeing the ashes may prompt a lapsed person or indeed a non-believer to change their attitudes.

  4. Tiffany says:

    Thank you for this article because it really has helped me to see the true meaning of the ashes. I was baptised Catholic, but my mother decided when I was a baby to stop believing. Thus, when I became an adult I had no knowledge of the Catholic Faith and had to start on that journey by myself. I am glad I did and will be receiving my Confirmation at the Easter Vigil this year. My first communion will actually be at my wedding in July. I am not sure why it is separate but they informed me that it will be. I fill like now I am held accountable for my actions and sins and that has made me a better person in Christ.

  5. Grandpa Tom says:

    Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Then there is the resurrection which is a everlasting union of the body and the soul. “The Lord Himself will come down from Heaven . . . with the trumpet of God; and the dead who are in Christ shall rise.” 1 Thess 4;15. He will reform the body of our lowness made to the body of His Glory. Pill. 3:21. The human body can be dissolved into the very elements, or changed into the flesh of other animals. It can be eaten by a lion, fish, or cannibals, but will in an instant return to that soul which animated it, making it a living and growing person. It is written: In my flesh I shall see God my Saviour. (Job xix.26.(Vulg., My God)). In the last days I shall rise out of the earth. Therefore the selfsame body will rise again being united to the selfsame soul. A hair of your head will not perish. Luke 21:18. God made Adam from the slime of the earth. God can raise the body reformed and reconstituted for the soul to which it belongs. Our bodies will be glorified. Blessed martyrs will bear the scars of the wounds in their bodies, which they bore for Christ’s name. This will not make them less, but more glorious. A certain beauty will shine in them, a beauty though in the body, yet not of the body but of virtue. Maryrs maimed and deprived of their limbs will not be without those limbs in the resurrection of the dead. Those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven will do so in glorified bodies, however those who died in mortal sin will inherit the corrupt bodies they took with them to the grave.

  6. Grace says:

    Dear Monsignor,

    Do you know why and when the Church in the States started putting ashes on the forehead rather than the top of the head as is done in parts of southeastern Europe? Maybe it’s done that way all over Europe and the UK– I don’t know. The only reason I can think of is that the Catholics in the States were proud of their identity and wanted to be a public witness to their faith. At first I thought my church was doing it wrong– but, then there were photos all over the internet of Pope Benedict receiving his ashes on the top of his head.

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