What do the Ashes Mean?


What do the Ashes Mean?

The liturgical use of ashes originates in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance.


liturgical use of ashes originates in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized
mourning, mortality, and penance. For instance, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai
put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes,
485-464 BC) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Est
4:1). Job (whose story was written between seventh and fifth centuries BC) repented
in sackcloth and ashes (Jb 42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem,
Daniel (c. 550 BC) wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest
prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dn 9:3). In the 5th century
BC, after Jonah’s preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Ninevah
proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, and the king covered himself with sackcloth
and sat in the ashes (Jon 3:5-6). These Old Testament examples evidence both a
recognized practice of using ashes and a common understanding of their symbolism.

Himself also made reference to ashes: Referring to towns that refused to repent
of sin although they had witnessed the miracles and heard the good news, our Lord
said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they
would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Mt 11:21).

early Church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. In his
book, De Poenitentia, Tertullian (c. 160-220) prescribed that the penitent
must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.”
Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his The
History of the Church
how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus
clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for
those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the
head of the person leaving confession.

In the Middle Ages (at least by the
time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground
on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless the dying person
with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt
return.” After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with
sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of
judgment?” To which the dying person replied, “I am content.” In
all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality, and penance is clear.

the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40-day preparation
period (not including Sundays) for Easter. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes”
is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates at
least to the eighth century. About the year 1000, an Anglo-Saxon priest named
Aelfric preached, “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.” As an aside, Aelfric reinforced his point
by then telling of a man who refused to go to Church on Ash Wednesday and receive
ashes; the man was killed a few days later in a boar hunt. Since the Middles Ages
at least, the Church has used ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season
of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins.

In our present
liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed
on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes
them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying,
“Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Turn
away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” As we begin this holy season
of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes
we have received: We mourn and do penance for our sins. We again convert our hearts
to the Lord, who suffered, died and rose for our salvation. We renew the promises
made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ.
Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live
the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in Heaven. In essence,
we die to ourselves, and rise to a new life in Christ.

As we remember the
significance of these ashes and strive to live it during this time of Lent, we
must allow the Holy Spirit to move us to charity toward our neighbors. Our Holy
Father in his Message for this Lent, 2003, said, “It is my fervent hope that
believers will find this Lent a favorable time for bearing witness to the Gospel
of charity in every place, since the vocation to charity is the heart of all true
evangelization.” He also lamented that our “age, regrettably is particularly
susceptible to the temptation toward selfishness which always lurks within the
human heart. … An excessive desire for possessions prevents human beings from
being open to their Creator and to their brothers and sisters.”

Lent, acts of self-giving love shown to those in need must be part of our penance,
conversion, and renewal, for such acts constitute the solidarity and justice essential
for building-up the Kingdom of God in this world.

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