What do ashes have to do with Lent?

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Photo: CNS
Photo: CNS

Dear Father, one thing I have always wondered about is the meaning of putting ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday. What does this have to do with Lent?

Lent, as we know, is a season of repentance for our sins and conversion in preparation for the celebration of our Redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection. While we tend to think in terms of preparing for Easter, it is more than that. Mankind was estranged from God by the original sin of our first parents and, moved by love, the Son of God became man in order to reconcile us with God by his death and resurrection.

The whole purpose of his becoming man was this. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who ‘loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’ (1 Jn 4:10; CCC 457)”. So we prepare for the celebration of our Redemption in Lent.

Returning to your question, there are two different but related meanings of the ashes at the beginning of Lent. They are expressed in the words the priest or other minister of the ashes may use on imposing them on Ash Wednesday.

The first has to do with ashes as a sign of repentance. While in modern times ashes in themselves are not associated with penance, in ancient times wearing sackcloth, a very rough garment, and sprinkling ashes on oneself were a common expression of repentance. One of the earliest passages in the Bible comes in the book of Job, where Job, moved by sorrow for his sins, says to God, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Another example is that of Tamar, a daughter of King David, whose half-brother Amnon forced her to sleep with him. In shame, “Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe which she wore” (2 Sam 13:19).

Similarly, when King Ahasuerus ordered the killing of all the Jews in his kingdom in Babylon, Mordecai “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry” (Esther 4:1).

When the king’s order became known throughout the provinces, “there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3). There are numerous other references to ashes in the prophets (cf. Is 61:3, Jer 6:26, Ezek 27:30, and Dan 9:3).

Jesus himself refers to this custom: “Woe to you, Chora’zin! woe to you, Beth-sa’ida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21).

So fasting and the use of sackcloth and ashes were a common expression of repentance in ancient times. Usually the ashes were sprinkled on the head. As a reminder of this meaning the priest or other minister may say on imposing the ashes on Ash Wednesday, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”.

The other meaning of ashes has to do with man’s mortality. We recall that in the creation of Adam God “formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Later, after Adam and Eve committed the original sin, God told Adam that as punishment he would have to die: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

On imposing the ashes the other formula the minister may use is these very words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Here we are reminded that we will not live forever on earth, and that we should be detached from earthly comforts and pleasures. Our Lenten penances can involve depriving ourselves of some of these comforts and pleasures so as to be purified from our sins and united with God in preparation for meeting him at our death.

The ashes are traditionally made from palm branches blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year.

They may be either placed on the forehead with the thumb in the sign of the cross or sprinkled lightly on the head, as is the custom in Spain, Italy and parts of Latin America.

In Rome it is the custom for the pope to have the ashes sprinkled on his head after a short penitential procession from the church of St Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina.

Related: Can a layman distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday?