REMEMBER YOU ARE DUST
The Catholic Church is rich in symbolism. Since the roots of much of this symbolism go back millennia, we can easily forget the meaning of some of these symbols. Ashes is one of these many symbols. When we speak of ashes, we immediately think of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Why do we begin this liturgical season with ashes? Its meaning can be found in the ritual that is used in the distribution of the ashes. The ashes are placed on the forehead in the form of a cross (this year, sprinkled on the head due to the pandemic) while one of two formulas is recited: either “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
The first of these two formulas is more familiar since it was in use long before the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. Its purpose is to remind us of our mortality. It refers back to the creation of humankind in Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground…”
The second formula is taken from the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Mark 1:15 as Jesus begins his public ministry. These six words sum up Jesus’ teaching. This formula is more dynamic than the first in that it calls the recipient of the ashes to turn from sin and to change one’s life in accordance with the gospel message.
The use of ashes as a sign of repentance is not a Christian development but is found way back in ancient Jewish practices. In the book of Jonah, when the king of Nineveh hears the prophecy of Jonah to repent or face disaster, he rises from his throne puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes as a sign of repentance. This story dates back to the fifth century B.C. Since most of the first Christians were Jewish, they simply borrowed many of the traditions practiced by the Jews. The use of ashes was one of these. In the third century in Rome, Christians who had sinned seriously entered into severe public penance that began on the first Sunday of Lent and lasted until Holy Thursday when they received absolution. During this time of penance, they were sprinkled with ashes, clothed in sackcloth and separated from the Christian community. By the time of the eighth century, public penance was no longer practiced in the church but the custom of using ashes as a sign of repentance was retained. Now everyone received ashes at the beginning of Lent.
The ashes that are used on Ash Wednesday are prepared by burning the palm that was blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In this way there is a continuous linking of one Lenten observance to another. When we receive the ashes, we are making a public statement that we are sorry for our sins and committing ourselves to follow the Lenten fast in preparation to celebrate the paschal mystery, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at Easter.