Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is often taken for granted. Many Catholics simply go through the motions while getting their ashes, never giving time to prayerfully consider its significance. Most know ashes are a sign of penance, that the ashes are made of last year’s burnt palms from Palm Sunday, and it is a day of fasting, but have they truly reflected upon the importance of Ash Wednesday? It has become a quick and almost thoughtless action: a one-day thing. In fact, some have catered to this mindset so far as to begin “Ashes to Go”— a movement involving roadside distribution of ashes. This practice seems to miss the point. The opportunity to start off our Lent with penance and mortification is lost when we consider Ash Wednesday solely a day to pray a little more than usual and receive our ashes. The Bible and the customs of the Early Church show us, in many different ways, that there is much more.
The liturgical use of penitential ashes dates back to the Old Testament. Mordecai, in the book of Esther, covered himself in sackcloth and ashes when he received word of the king of Persia’s decree to kill the Jews. This action was of grief, mourning, and repentance, prostrating himself before an almighty God. Likewise, the Ninevites, after hearing Jonah preach of their destruction, repented, put on sackcloth, and proclaimed a fast in an attempt to appease God’s wrath. Even the king of Nineveh “was clothed in sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonas 3:5). The king, the absolute ruler of the city, partaking in this external mode of mortification was not insignificant. Ashes are clearly a sign of repentance, profound humility, and total submission.
In the Early Church, ashes, along with sackcloth, played an important role in the penances of public penitents. This reminded them of their lowliness and was an act of humble reparation for their sins. Ashes were sprinkled on the heads of those leaving confession, and Christians who had committed grave sins underwent 40 days of penance in sackcloth and ashes beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Maundy Thursday, otherwise known as Holy Thursday. The earliest recorded ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is set down in one of the first editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which itself dates back to at least the 8th century or before. By the middle ages, the “Day of Ashes” had become a universal practice, with all good Christians receiving ashes on that day as an outward sign of interior penance, contrition, and humility—a reminder of their own mortality.
The blessing of the ashes at the commencement of Lent is, according to the 1962 Daily Missal, “one of the great liturgical rites of the year.” Not only does it give us the proper context and mindset as we enter this season of penance, but it also reminds us of our littleness before God. As the priest marks the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the blessed ashes, he says, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” This spirit of humility and awareness of our mortality should be kept throughout the entirety of Lent.
The external sign of ashes symbolizes our interior state and our commitment to amend our lives. However, this is commonly forgotten. Rather than truly begging the forgiveness of God for our sins, both on this day and throughout the next 40 days of Lent, many of us simply go through the motions. We neither actively mortify ourselves, nor do we desire it. Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent; the receiving of ashes should readjust our mindset. The Bible and the customs of the Early Church show us that receiving ashes is only the first step of the penitential season. The process of contrition, sorrow, and mortification must continue throughout all of Lent, and we should always keep in mind our mortality, humility before God, and dependence upon His mercy.
– St. Louis de Montfort, Pray for us!