I noticed even as a young child that some of the largest crowds in the year will show up to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, even if it is not a holy day of obligation. Many Filipinos could not afford to let go of Ash Wednesday without a trip to church to be marked with an ashen cross on their foreheads. Even people who seldom come to Church for the rest of the year make a concerted effort to come for ashes (which is good!).
And how would you know if the person seated next to you in the jeepney is not a Catholic? He or she makes a point of telling you that you have something on your forehead, assuming you would want to wash it off. Hehe. But many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day. Happy Ash Wednesday!!!
1. The origin of the custom of using ashes in religious ritual can be found in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God (Is 58:5). (Perhaps) the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament is that of the King of Nineveh: “He rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jon 3:6).
2.In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).
3.Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents.
4.As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents.
5. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.
6. At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.
7. In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.
8. Originally, the marking of ashes is related with baptism. Those who had committed serious sins confessed their sins to the bishop or his representative and were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. Penance this time was called “second baptism.” With the gradual disappearance of the Order of Penitents, the use of ashes became detached from its original context. The focus on personal penance and the Sacrament of Penance continued in Lent, but the connection to Baptism was no longer obvious to most people. This is reflected in the formula that came to be associated with the distribution of ashes: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
9. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for the renewal of Lent, recovering its ancient baptismal character. Since Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, it naturally is also the beginning to recover a baptismal focus. One hint of this is the second formula that is offered for the imposition of ashes: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Though it doesn’t explicitly mention Baptism, it recalls our baptismal promises to reject sin and profess our faith. It is a clear call to conversion, to that movement away from sin and toward Christ that we have to embrace over and over again through our lives.
10. There is a certain irony in the gospel reading for today, which tells us to wash our faces so that we do not appear to be doing penance on the day that we go around with “dirt” on our foreheads. This is just another way Jesus is telling us not to perform religious acts for public recognition. We don’t wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge that we are a community of sinners in need of repentance and renewal.
When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are.
We remember that we are creatures of the earth (“Remember that you are dust”).
We remember that we are mortal beings (“and to dust you will return”).
We remember that we are baptized.
We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion (“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”).
We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).