Ash Wednesday is an important part of the season of Lent. The Church sees some of the largest crowds of people show up on this day in order to receive ashes. Why do so many people come to receive ashes even though it is not a holy day of obligation? Many people would not think of letting Ash Wednesday go by without making a trip to Church and receiving ashen cross on their foreheads. How did this practice become so popular with Christian believers and why do many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day long without washing it off?
So, are ashes found in the Bible? Well, we see some references in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Isaiah says; “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Is 58:5). In regard to Israel’s repentance, the prophet Daniel says; “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3). We see in the book of Jonah, because of his preaching, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jon 3:6). References are also found in Judith 4:11, 4:15, 9:1, and in Maccabees 3:47, 4:39.
We find references also in the New Testament. Jesus also refers to sackcloth and ashes; “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).
History of Ashes in the Church:
Before the year 960, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. Our use of ashes at the beginning of Lent is seen as an extension of the use of ashes with those entering the Order of Penitents. This discipline was the way the Sacrament of Penance was celebrated throughout most of the first century of the Church. Those who had committed serious sins would have to go to the bishop and confess their sins and he would assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. After the penitents completed their penance, they were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the presence of the community of believers.
In the 11th century, all the faithful started to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the putting on of ashes. Later, towards the end of the century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.
Lent became a time when the whole community prayed and fasted for the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism. In addition, all baptized members of the community prepared to renew their baptismal promises at Easter, thus joining the catechumens in seeking to deepen their own conversion. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is the season that calls us to a conversion journey.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“…By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert…The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works) [CCC #540, 1428].”
From the Book of Blessings #1059:
“The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance. The blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday normally takes place during the celebration of Mass. However, when circumstances require, the blessing and distribution of ashes may take place apart from Mass, during a celebration of the word of God.”
The words that are used when receiving ashes:
(1) Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.
(2) Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.
Until next time, God bless.