Today, on this first day of Lent, we humble ourselves as we seek to have ashes placed on our heads to begin this season of penance. They are a symbol of sorrow and contrition, of penance and mortality. But where did we derive such a curious custom? What are the roots behind this strange symbolic act?
To answer these questions, we have to go back to the days before Christ. We don't exactly know why, but we know that wearing ashes was a symbol of repentance for the ancient Jews, our forefathers in faith. The Prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls the Jewish people to repentance with these words: "O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, roll in ashes" (Jer 6:26). Other Old Testament prophets (namely Daniel and Jonah) also implore the Israelites to don ashes and sackcloth as signs of penance and sorrow for iniquities. The Book of Judith specifies that ashes were worn on the head. Before preparing for battle with their Roman occupiers, the Jewish Maccabean independence fighters "fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Mac 3:47). Obviously, ashes were a well-established symbol of penance. Even Jesus himself acknowledged as much (see Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13).
Tied to Confession
During the first thousand years or so of the Church, the use of ashes (and sackcloth) continued in the sacrament of Penance (i.e. Confession). If you think going to confess your sins in private to a priest is tough, consider the way this sacrament was practiced during these early years:
A baptized Christian who committed a serious sin would approach the local bishop to seek the Church's absolution. He or she would have to make a public confession of the sin(s) in front of the local church community. The bishop would then impose a penance which would be worked out over time (sometimes weeks or months, but quite often years) and he would symbolically sprinkle the penitent's head with ashes as a symbol of repentance. During the time that the penitent worked on his or her penance, he or she was relegated to a special section in the church and wore a special garment: sackcloth, made from goat's hair. Along with the catechumens who were preparing for baptism, the penitents would be dismissed each Sunday from the Mass before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After the alloted time was completed, the penitent would be re-admitted to the community by the bishop (usually on Holy Thursday), who would pray the prayer of absolution over his or her head in the midst of the local church community.
(Sort of makes you appreciate the way this sacrament is celebrated today, doesn't it?)
The spiritual journey of the Church's penitents was closely related to that of the catechumens who were baptized and received into the Church on the Easter Vigil. The season we now call Lent developed as the local church community took up preparational fasting and more intense prayers along with the catechumens in the weeks leading up to Easter. In doing this, these Christians were seeking to deepen their own faith and more strongly turn towards Christ. It was a natural development, then, that ashes--one of the most ancient and prolific symbols of repentance in Judeo-Christian culture--should come to be distributed to all as a sign of penance at the start of Lent.
Sprinkle or smudge?
Even the way that ashes are imposed has changed over time. In the days of the Old Testament and in the early Church, ashes were poured liberally on the head. Over time, as the imposition of ashes became part of what we now call "Ash Wednesday" (i.e. the first day of Lent), it became the custom for ashes to be sprinkled on the heads of men and to be smudged on the foreheads of women. This makes sense when you consider the fact that women traditionally covered their heads in church, while men did not. Only in recent decades has it become widespread to smudge the ashes on the foreheads of men and women alike.
The ashes themselves are blessed by the priest either prior to or during the Mass or prayer service. It is customary to wear the ashes throughout the day as a sign of humility. In an area of the country such as the Deep South, where Catholics are a distinct minority, wearing your ashes all day is often truly a penitential experience. You can be assured that almost no one that you encounter throughout the day has any understanding about why you have a "smudge" on your forehead. Many well-meaning friends (or even strangers) will innocently inform you that you "have something on your head." Some will ask if it's a bruise. In each and every instance, you have a God-given chance to evangelize (spread the Gospel). You can kindly inform them that the "smudge" is intentional, made from ashes, and that today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. You might explain that the ashes symbolize your sorrow for your sins. And you might even ask them to pray for you! If you feel embarrassed, that's a wonderful interior opportunity to offer your sufferings up to God as a penance.
Remember, too, that ashes are a symbol of mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." These are the words traditionally spoken as ashes are placed on your head. This is not all for naught. We all will, indeed, die one day and we do not know when or how. Ash Wednesday can be the perfect time to reflect on that fact. We shy away from death and talk of the end. But shying away from it will do us no good. Indeed, such silliness may even be harmful to our souls. We need God's mercy. We need his help in examining our souls. We need him to help bring us closer to the perfection that is the goal of every Christian. In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon (which I highly recommend, especially as a Lenten book), the late Father Richard John Neuhaus reminded us of Jesus' plea:
'Come follow me,' Jesus says. The invitation resounds through all the time there is and ever will be, and all who respond in faith—all who exchange their 'I' for the 'I' of the Christ who lives within them—make their way, one way or another, to the foot of the cross. There they find themselves with John and Mary and a host of bedraggled saints and sinners whose hour has come.
We should try to find ourselves, too, at the foot of the cross, responding in faith to God's urging. We should try today. Now. For we are not promised tomorrow.
Momento Mori, artistic rendering of symbols of mortality.
In an abandoned cemetery in the woods of the Holmes County State Park, where we go for our statewide Spring Retreat each year, there is a tombstone that caused me to freeze as I happened to read it a few years ago. I still remember its haunting words, chiseled in a time when men and women faced death head on and were not afraid to discuss its consequences. Much like the genre of symbolic art called the momento mori, this tombstone unabashedly calls the viewer to take stock of his or her life; to face their own mortality and to examine their place with God. I'll leave you with its words which can, perhaps, serve as a point of reflection for you now and throughout the days of Lent.
"To the stranger passing by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be.
Prepare for death and follow me."