The truth of life in this world is echoed in the words of Catholic priests the world over, today: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”Ash Wednesday is one of the most misunderstood “well-known” Catholic traditions, but it is actually the crux of truly living the faith. We have all, at one time or another, had the experience of, after receiving our ashes in the morning and then going about our day, being kindly reminded by a friend or coworker that we have a little dirt on our foreheads. But the ashes we are marked with are not an ill-timed blemish; they are, both, a shout out to the world – and an inward spiritual reminder to ourself.
Where do the ashes come from?
The ashes themselves come from the palms that were used for celebration of the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the crowd – the crowd who would ultimately turn on Him – laid out palm branches to decorate His path and honor Him. The palm leaves are ceremonially burned and then pummeled into a fine powder. The ashes are then blessed by the priest during the Ash Wednesday Mass, following his homily.
There are several key messages that Catholics get from the ashes that we bear on our foreheads. They remind us that what we are in this life is not all that we are. We make our statement that we intend to die to the things of this world and live as God intended us – as true disciples of Christ. We use ashes as a symbol of repentance, as they had been for thousands of years, by the people of God.
They are also a stark reminder of our fragility and mortality, and the need for us to be redeemed by God.
Most importantly, Ash Wednesday begins Lent, the 46 day period that leads up to the holiest celebration in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, Easter Sunday. (40 days of fasting – Sundays are excluded from fast obligations)
On Ash Wednesday, we reflect about what it truly means to be penitent and we prepare for a period of sacrifice, with the end goal of bringing ourselves closer to Our Father in Heaven. Catholics will fast on Ash Wednesday and also on every Friday during Lent, and we will also make some form of sacrifice over the entire period. Usually this is in the form of giving up something we truly enjoy, for the sake of getting closer to the people whom God made us to be.
The world and all that is in it is in constant conflict with Heaven and the Lord. When we deny ourselves worldly pleasures – or at least some of them – we grow a little bit closer to the type of people who are worthy of entry into Heaven – though we can never truly merit this, ourselves.
Is this biblical?
“I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord, my God, and confessed.” – Daniel 9:3-4
“Therefore I disown what I have said and repent in dust and ashes.” – Job 42:6
“When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes.” – Jonah 3:6
Catholics use the ashes as a symbol to connect with the old ways of repentance, as we approach the season of Lent.
Didn’t Jesus speak against the use of ashes and public displays of penitence and piety?
Many opponents of the Catholic Church point to a lesson about fasting in the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus condemning outward displays of penitence, such as the wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday:
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” – Matthew 6:16-18.
The problem with this argument is that Jesus was not speaking about ashes – He was speaking about hypocrisy. The hypocrites would deliberately make themselves look dirty and haggard so that people would look at them as pious. Many of them weren’t even fasting. This has absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic tradition of wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Catholics wear ashes as a sign to ourselves that we are about to enter a period of great solemnity, during which we prepare for the tragedy of Jesus’ Passion – and the glory of His Resurrection. Although we make an outward display on Ash Wednesday, we make our sacrifices in secret, over the 40 days of Lent.
What does it all mean for modern Catholics?
When we wear our ashes in preparation for the lead-up to the remembrance of Our Lord’s death and Resurrection, we must draw closer to what He taught us. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Although we are essentially called to live this way all year round, it is especially important for our own spiritual journey to observe the pillars during Lent.
We pray because prayer is the channel through which we speak with God and grow closer to Him.
We fast because when we temporarily cut off our physical intake of earthly pleasures, our spiritual qualities begin to grow, and that brings us closer to God.
We give because that is how we should treat our brothers and sisters who have less than us and that brings us closer to God.
There is a clear pattern that culminates in the Christian life: it is all about bringing ourselves closer to God. This is not only for our own good, but more importantly for our brothers and sisters. When we grow closer to God, it allows us bring God closer to our world, and our world so desperately needs God, now more than ever.
Ash Wednesday is a wonderful part of the Catholic faith because it focuses our intentions on the truth of the Gospel: that without the gift that was the willing act of sacrifice by Jesus Christ, we are nothing but ashes.