Why Do Catholics Wear Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
Priest friends of mine often remark that the most well-attended Mass of the year isn’t Christmas or Easter, but rather Ash Wednesday. They often joke that this is strange because it isn’t even a Holy Day of Obligation.
But there is something primal that calls to us about Ash Wednesday. Something that goes beyond the curiosity of wearing a dab of ashes on our foreheads for the rest of the day. For the ashes are purposeful, they are purposefully ashes and not something else. Why ashes and not something else? By looking at how ashes are used in the Old Testament we can begin to see how the practice of being signed with ashes perfectly ushers us into the season of Lent.
When the priest (or another minister) mark your forehead with ashes they have the option of a few things to say. They can say “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or they can say “Remember you are dust and unto dust, you shall return”.
Let’s look at both of these formulas and how they apply to Lent.
Repent and believe in the Gospel
To repent is to turn away from sin. But as we turn away from sin we must turn towards something. For the act of turning necessarily involves two things- a turning away from something and a turning towards something.
There is a line in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem. This calls to mind the prophecy from Isaiah in which we read that “I have set my face like flint”. Like flint; hard and ready to be struck in order to set a flame.
When Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem he turns toward Jerusalem, but what does he turn away from?
Namely, the city of Jericho. Jericho is down and Jerusalem is up, literally. Jerusalem is on top of a mountain whereas Jericho is down in a valley. Jericho, as a city, had been a symbol of evil and sin in juxtaposition to the holiness of Jerusalem. Jesus turns his back on sin and evil in order to set his face towards the top of the mountain, the holy of holies, Jerusalem.
Jesus has repented by turning away from Jericho, the city of sin, and has symbolically believed the Gospel by setting his face towards Jerusalem. He does so symbolically of course because he has no need of repentance, having never turned towards sin. He has turned towards the Gospel- towards the place where he will be spit on, insulted, and crucified. This is the Gospel.
As Paul says, we preach a Gospel of Christ crucified. This is the Gospel we are called to believe in when the minister applies the ashes.
Remember you are dust and to dust, you shall return
This is direct from the book of Genesis about God’s judgement of Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit of the tree. It is an immediate reaction to the reality of sin. This is important for its’ use on Ash Wednesday.
It is at this moment that the paschal mystery of Jesus becomes needed. The sin introduced by Adam and Eve can only be conquered by one event- the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When these words are said to us on Ash Wednesday, we too, should be reminded that our sin has only one way of being conquered- by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The same sacrifice that he set his face like flint towards in the Gospel of Luke.
But then, why ashes and not simply dust? Ashes have a long tradition in the Old Testament of being used in mourning, especially for our sin.
The books of Judith and Esther have multiple examples of the Israelites exhorting God through wearing sackcloth and wearing ashes on their heads. In recognition of their sin and their need for God’s mercy to mark themselves with ash as a way to show that their outside is as dirty and need to clean as their interior lives.
In the book of Daniel, among other places, we hear of the wearing of ashes in connection with prayer and fasting. “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” (Dan 9:3)
This sounds exactly like Lent. We turn towards God, we turn away from sin. How do we accomplish this turning? With prayer, fasting, and ashes. The ashes become a physical sign that we are in the process of this turning towards God. That we, along with Jesus Christ, are turning and setting our faces like flint towards Jerusalem.
So this Lent, as you go to Ash Wednesday and try to keep those ashes on your forehead even though they may itch or feel uncomfortable, remember what the ashes represent: a turning away from sin and towards our need for a savior. Turn with Jesus Christ towards Jerusalem, and not just his own passion but allowing Jesus Christ to accompany us in our passion so that we can join Him in His resurrection.