Externals of the Catholic Church – Ashes

On Ash Wednesday the Church begins the penitential season of Lent, the forty days of mortification during which her children are called upon to remember that they must chastise their bodies and bring them into subjection; that he who neglects to do penance is in danger of perishing; and that at all times the Christian must remember his last end and his return to the dust from which he was taken.

As we are all conscious that by nature we are “children of wrath,” we are urged to appease the offended majesty of God by the practice of penance and mortification; and the Church teaches us this solemn duty by the impressive ceremony of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

An Ancient Practice

Like many of the other symbolic practices of our Church, the use of ashes to express humiliation and sorrow is something which was common in other religions. Many references to it are found in the Old Testament, When David repented for his sins he cried out: “I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.” When the people of Nineveh were aroused to penance by the preaching of the prophet Jonas, they “proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes.” It is probable, therefore, that the use of ashes was introduced in the early Church by converts from Judaism because it was an observance with which they had been familiar in their former faith.

The Lenten fast, according to the ancient practice of our Church, began on the Monday after the first Sunday of Lent. Consequently the penitential season was then somewhat shorter than it is now; deducting the Sundays, there were originally only thirty-six fasting days. But about the year 700 it was seen to be fitting that the fast of the faithful should be of the same duration as that which our Blessed Lord had undergone; and the beginning of the season of penance was fixed on what we now call Ash Wednesday.

Originally a Public Penance

At first the ashes were imposed only on public penitents. In those austere days of ecclesiastical discipline, public expiation was always exacted as a reparartion for public scandal. Those who sought reconciliation with God after grievous sin were required to appear at the door of the church in penitential garb on Ash Wednesday morning. They were then clad in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes, and were debarred from the church services until Holy Thursday.

But there were always among the faithful certain devout souls who were not public sinners, but who wished to be sharers in the humiliation of Ash Wednesday. And so, gradually, it became the custom for all Catholics, including the clergy, to receive the ashes on that day. The earliest legislation decreeing this is found about the year 1090, and within a century from that time it had become a universal practice.

The Source of Blessed Ashes

The ashes used for this ceremony are obtained by the burning of the blessed palms of the previous Palm Sunday. In this the mystical writers of the Church have found a symbolic meaning. The palm typifies victory; and the ashes show us that we cannot gain the victory over sin and Satan unless by the practice of humility and mortification.

The Prayers of the Blessing

The language of the blessing is very beautiful, and it is regrettable that our people are not made more familiar with these and other petitions which are used in the liturgy of our Church. In these prayers God is besought to spare us sinners; to send His holy Angel to bless these ashes, that they may become a salutary remedy; that all upon whom they are sprinkled may have health of body and soul. He is implored to bestow His mercy upon us, who are but dust and ashes; and, just as He spared the Ninevites, whom He had doomed to destruction, so the Church begs Him to spare us, because, like them, we wish to do penance and obtain forgiveness.

Such is the substance of the blessing, and then comes the solemn imposition. Rich and poor, cleric and layman, the tottering old man and the little child, all throng to the altar of God; and with the impressive words: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return,” the priest places upon the head of each those ashes which are such a striking symbol of our frail mortality. As a spiritual writer has said: “He mingles the ashes that are dead with with the ashes yet alive,” that the lifeless dust may impress upon us the solemn truth that we too are but dust, and that unto dust we shall return.