What’s one way you can spot a Catholic? As the saying goes, “It’s written on their face.” Each year on Ash Wednesday, Catholics (and other Christian denominations) around the world profess their faith by going to work, school, or going about their daily lives with the symbol of the cross displayed on their foreheads. The ritual of “getting ashes” marks the start of the Lenten season and has a simple but poignant meaning. In anticipation for the start of the Lenten journey for 2016, we thought it would be interesting to research and answer some frequently asked questions about receiving ashes and the importance of Ash Wednesday.
What do the ashes mean?
More than just saying we are followers of Christ, the ashes drawn in the shape of a cross on our foreheads serve as our personal reminder of our sinful nature and our need for penance. We use the weeks during Lent to turn our focus back to where it’s supposed to be: on Jesus, remembering the suffering He endured on the cross for our sins, and to concentrate on Jesus’ plan for us. If we’re sinning right and left, we need to stop!
Receiving ashes isn’t like getting a blessing
Many believe receiving ashes is like getting a blessing from the priest. It isn’t. In addition to reminding us of our need to repent for our sinful ways, the ashes serve as a harsh, but necessary reminder that we are mortal and that one day our bodies will die. The phrase said by the priest as he imposes the ashes puts it bluntly, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This phrase should wake us up like a splash of ice cold water on our faces, reminding us that our time here is finite.
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
While it’s easy to get caught up in the things of this world—material objects, getting ahead, keeping up with the Joneses, etc.—we can’t forget to keep our eyes on the true prize: the Kingdom of Heaven. Getting there isn’t easy; that’s why our limited time here is supposed to be spent living a Christ-like life every day so that we’re worthy of gaining entry. Every so often, we need to check-in with ourselves to assess our sinful (and good) ways and make amends for our wrongdoings. Are we ignoring the homeless? Grumbling about helping the needy? Cheating just a little bit? That check-in period is what Lent is about. Acknowledging our sins is just one part; the other is making a change!
Depending on the priest’s preference, he may also say,
“Repent and believe in the gospel,” repeating Jesus’ words in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
The Lenten season lasts for 40 days to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting, praying, and battling the devil before starting his public ministry. If we count back 40 days from Easter, it lands on a Wednesday. Note that Sundays are not counted in the 40 days of Lent. Why? Each Sunday is considered a mini celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore is not counted as part of days of penance.
When did the practice start?
According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the practice of using ashes dates back to the Old Testament. At that time, ashes symbolized mourning, mortality, and penance. For example, predicting the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" (Dn 9:3). Another example can be found in the Book of Esther (Est 4:1) when Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire.
The early church continued to use ashes as a symbol of repentance for sinners as documented in church writings. In The History of the Church, historian Eusebius states how a heretic went before the pope at the time “clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness.” Also during that time, people making a public penance had ashes sprinkled on their heads by a priest after making their confession.
The ritual was eventually adapted as a symbol on the "Day of Ashes" (another name for Ash Wednesday) as early as the eighth century. Around the year 1000, an Anglo-Saxon priest named Aelfric stressed to the public, "We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
Where do ashes come from?
Ashes are made from remnants of burned palm branches distributed the year before on Palm Sunday—the day that commemorates when Jesus entered Jerusalem and the crowds greeted their Messiah by waving palms in His direction. The ashes are blessed by the priest before being distributed, usually after the homily.
Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation?
No. The Church reserves holy days of obligation to commemorate a particular event (the birth of Christ—Christmas) or a significant person or group of people (Feast of the Immaculate Conception or All Saints’ Day). Ash Wednesday is, however, a day of abstinence (not eating meat) and fasting (eating only one full meal and two smaller meals). Many priests, however, strongly suggest attending mass even though you’re not obligated as a useful starting point to help you embark on your Lenten journey.
Why can’t I eat meat?
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of the reasons we don’t consume meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent is because, “On the Fridays of Lent, we remember the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday and unite ourselves with that sacrifice through abstinence and prayer.”