As a boy, I remember wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their foreheads. Frankly, I had some revulsion at the idea. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today, though I’ll admit I still don’t like it too much, I behave myself and don’t rub them off!
I pray that this doesn’t seem impious, but I still marvel at how many people pack into the church to get ashes on their foreheads. Sadder still, some who come don’t seem to want Holy Communion nearly as much. In fact, in some of the parishes where I served in the past, significant numbers walked out the door after receiving ashes and did not even stay for Communion.
Of course most people 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 so unappealing and challenging.
Indeed, the sign of ashes is quite challenging if understand what it really means. We are saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.
What 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. Rather, having encountered God, he realizes that God is God, and that he, Jacob, is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God, who is being itself, who is all in all. Yes, Jacob is a son in the presence of a Father; he is not God’s equal that he might question Him or put Him on trial.
Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance but humility as well. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility in quoting Gen 3:19: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as the ashes are placed on the individual’s forehead.
A reminder of death and a call to wisdom – After Adam sinned, God told him, By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).
As he imposes the ashes, the priest usually recites some form of this passage. And memorable though it is, consider an even blunter form: “You are going to die.”
This is a salient and sobering reminder that we often get worked up and anxious about passing things, while at the same time being unmindful of the certain and most important thing, for which we really must be ready. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Sadly, like the man in one of the Lord’s parables, we can amass worldly things and forget the final things. To him the Lord said, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:21-22).
Thus, to consider our final end is wise; to fail to do so is foolishness defined.
Ashes are a sacramental that points to the Sacrament – The Old Testament declared, You 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 (Numbers 19:9, 17).
This text shows 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 receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and then not go to confession some time during Lent is really to miss the point. If one really desires to repent and to be cleansed and free of sin, then from the sacramental of ashes one goes to the Sacrament of Confession. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pointless.
A sign of a true change – Scripture says, When the news [of Nineveh’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 alone is not enough—actual repentance is required. The king does not just “get 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 applies the ashes is, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance 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).
Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith. 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.”
There are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our ongoing 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 yet another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he imposes the ashes.
How real are your ashes? Do you intend the things described above as you go forth? Or is it just a ritual, something to do because it’s “sorta neat”? Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of the ashes.