Ash Wednesday, February 17, marks the beginning of Lent, the season in which we prepare for the celebration of Easter through our prayer, sacrifice and acts of charity. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are a reminder of a significant aspect of our faith which is our need for repentance. Lent is a key time in the liturgical year and ashes are a key symbol for us as Catholics.
The liturgical use of the ashes has its roots in the Old Testament where there are numerous instances of the use of ashes as a sign of repentance. Just two of these were the use of ashes by Job as a sign of his repentance, “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), as well as the prophet Daniel, "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Dn 9:3). Jesus also made reference to the use of ashes as a sign of repentance. Rebuking the towns that refused to heed His message although they had witnessed His miracles and heard His preaching of the Good News, Jesus proclaimed, "If the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have long ago repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21).
The early Church continued the use of ashes for the same symbolic reason of calling to mind the need for repentance. For those who were required to do public penance, a priest sprinkled ashes on their heads after their confession. The use of ashes was quickly adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. 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.
The words used as the ashes are imposed upon our heads are a vivid reminder of what they mean. There are two formulas which may be used. The first is, "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." These words are a reminder of our mortality and our dependence upon God for all things. Ashes are the dust which remain from the burnt palms used at the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. Like those palms which have become simply ashes, we too will return to the dust of the earth from which God made us. Receiving the ashes on Ash Wednesday is a visible reminder that we simply pass through this world and are ultimately heading back to God. What matters is not what we achieve on our own but how we live our relationship with God.
The second formula is, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." We are all in need of repentance. The season of Lent is a time in which we call to mind that we need to change and turn more to God. During this season we take up certain practices of prayer, good works and self-denial as a means to purify ourselves so that we might center our lives more on the Gospel of Christ. It is important to concentrate not on what we do, but on our need to change. Our works of repentance are meant to help us celebrate more fully the new life Christ gives us at Easter through His Resurrection. Again, what matters is not what we achieve in this world but how we live our relationship with God.
This year the imposition of ashes will take place in a different manner from that with which we are familiar. It will actually occur in the manner that has occurred from the early years of the Church and is still observed in Italy and other parts of Europe. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has directed that, due to safety precautions during this time of the pandemic, ashes can be distributed by being sprinkled on the crown of the head rather than being imposed on the forehead. The priest will bless the ashes and then address all those present by saying once either of the formulas described at the beginning of this column. Then he puts on a face mask and sprinkles the ashes on the head of each person without saying anything. When I was in Rome in February, 1998, for the Bishops’ ad limina visit, I was privileged to have received ashes from St. John Paul II in this fashion.
As we receive ashes in this manner, we will not carry the visible sign of the ashes on our foreheads. However, they carry the same meaning for us and remind us of the long tradition of ashes in the Church. The ashes not being as visible as usual exemplify the Lord’s words in the Gospel reading of Ash Wednesday, “Take care not to perform religious deeds in order that people may see them, otherwise you may have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (Mt 6:1). Jesus urges us to give alms, to pray and to fast, but not in a manner that draws attention to ourselves. It is our interior attitude that is at the core of what we do to help us grow in our relationship with God and not visible signs that stand out before others. Hidden ashes can speak more boldly than visible ones when received in the right spirit.
The second reading for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday speaks of the depth of God's love for each of us and points to the very meaning of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, "For our sakes, God made Him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the very holiness of God” (2Cor 5:20). God so much loves each and every one of us, whom He made from dust, that He gave us His Son who took our weak and frail human nature to Himself so that we might live the very life of God Himself. The divinity of Christ is hidden in His humanity. His divinity speaks boldly in that manner. What a wonderful exchange, all on God's part, for us! The ashes we carry, as well as being a sign of our sinfulness and need for repentance, are also a sign of the emptying of Christ and His taking our sins to Himself so that we can come to His life and holiness.
As we begin the holy season of Lent, ashes unite us in a vivid reminder of our common fallen humanity and of what our faith is all about. Christ came to give His life in order that we might have life. He forgives us our sins and failures, but we must admit them freely before Him and turn ourselves more and more to Him. As this season begins, may the forty days before us truly bring us an increase of the reality of the life of God within us. May the prayer by which the ashes are blessed be a reminder to us of their meaning all during the season, “Oh God, who desires not the death of sinners, but their conversion, mercifully hear our prayers and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, with knowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, receive pardon for our sins and newness of life after the likeness of your risen Son.”
A Blessed Ash Wednesday!
A Blessed Lent!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 12, 2021