I was introducing myself to some classes at Dana Hills HIgh School this past week and I couldn’t figure out why so many kids were staring. Finally, one raised his hand and asked: “Mr. Sikorski, do you know you have dirt on your forehead?”
“It’s not dirt,” I responded. “They’re ashes. It’s how we Catholics mark the beginning of our entry into Lent.”
Throughout the day curious students chimed in with “why” questions. I thought it might beneficial to summarize my explanations. (Of course, this goes into more detail than I could provide at the one time. The history of Ash Wednesday could take a whole Catholic school class period.)
The practice of using ashes has its roots in the Old Testament. The ritual of ” wearing sack cloth and marking oneself with ashes” as a sign or repentance appears often.
-Jeremiah called for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26).
-Daniel begged God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of : “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3).
-Jonah knew he was successful in reaching the king of Nineveh “when he (the king) rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jon 3:6).
-In Judith’s time “Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads”. (Jdt 4:11; see also 4:15 and 9:1).
-The Maccabees used ashes to prepare themselves for battle: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes” (1 Mc 3:47; see also 4:39).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of “sackcloth and ashes” as signs of repentance: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13)
Marking oneself with ashes was a deliberate sign of repentance and preparation in the Jewish Faith. As we all know, Christianity has its roots in Judaism.
The first clearly liturgical use of ashes for Ash Wednesday in the Christian Church dates back to the pontificate of 960. Before that ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. It was part of the way the Sacrament of Penance was celebrated. Those who committed serious sins confessed them to the bishop or his representative and were assigned a penance to be carried out over a period of time. After completing the prescribed penance, the penitents were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the community.
During the time they worked out their penances, these Christians often sat in special places and wore special garments to indicate their status. Like the catechumens preparing for Baptism, they were often dismissed from the Sunday assembly after the Liturgy of the Word. This whole “sacrament of Penance” process was modeled after the conversion journey of the catechumens, because the Church saw falling into serious sin after Baptism as an indication that a person had not really been converted. Penance was a second attempt to foster that conversion. Early Church fathers even called Penance a “second Baptism.”
At the beginning of the 11th century, it became customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II made the practice official and called for the general use of ashes on that day. Later this day came to be called Ash Wednesday.
At first only clergy and male laity had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well. In the 12th century it was prescribed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.
As Lent developed in the Church, the whole community prayed and fasted for the catechumens preparing for Baptism. Members of the community already baptized prepared to renew their baptismal promises at Easter, thus joining the catechumens in seeking to deepen their own conversion.
With the gradual disappearance of the Order of Penitents, the use of ashes became detached from its original context. Lenten focus on personal penance and the Sacrament of Penance continued. During the Middle Ages the words with the distribution of ashes: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” were used during the distribution of ashes. (The words many of us older Catholics remember.) Focus was on our mortality, as an incentive to take the call to repentance seriously, with little hint of any baptismal meaning. Emphasis on mortality fit well with the medieval experience of life since the threat of death was always at hand. Many people died young, and the plague made death even more prevalent.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for a renewal of baptismal character of Lent. This fit with the restoration of the catechumenate mandated by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972). As Catholics increasingly interact with catechumens during their final preparation for the Easter sacrements, hopefully we increase our understanding of Lent as a season of both baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal.
As our pastor so aptly put it in his Ash Wednesday serrmon, “we are all called to walk with them so that we will be prepared to renew our baptismal promises when Easter arrives.”
Today the words spoken with the imposition of ashes ask us to: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
Father Lawrence E. Micki, writer for the American Catholic Newsletter summarizes the reasons for the liturgical use of ashes beautifully.
“When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth (“Remember that you are dust”). We remember that we are mortal beings (“and to dust you will return”). We remember that we are baptized. We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion (“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”). We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).”
I hope I did Father Mick justice when I answered the many questions from those public school students. (I should forward his article to all those British reporters who thought Vice President Biden had a bruise on his forehead when he gave press conferences this past Wednesday.)
“Ash Wednesday. Our Shifting Understanding of Lent” by Lawrence E. Mick