The anti-Catholics criticize the Church on her practice of the imposition of ashes on the faithful’s forehead. According to them, Ash Wednesday originated from Nordic pagan religion where ashes were put above the brow to ensure protection of the Norse god, Odin. They added that it is not mentioned in the Bible; that none of the apostles observed it; and that it was not officially practiced until nearly 1000 years after Christ’s resurrection. But what is really the truth behind Ash Wednesday? Where did it come from?
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. It is the first day of the Lenten season. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the 6 Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter, the great feast day of the Lord’s resurrection. It is originally called “Feria Quarta Cinerum (day of ashes)” wherein ashes were originally strewn over men’s heads, but, probably because women had their heads covered in the Church, they were placed on the foreheads of women. One of the earliest description on the rite of threwing ashes on the forehead at the start of Lent is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1020). In his book: Lives of the Saints, he wrote, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material) as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning is an ancient practice of the people of God. Ashes were used in ancient times to express grief. When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, “she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying” (2 Samuel 13:19). The gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6). The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jeremiah 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes” (1 Maccabees 3:47; 4:39). Other examples of this practice among Jews are also found in several other books in the Old Testament, including Numbers 19:9, 19:17; Jonah 3:6; and Esther 4:1.
In the New Testament, our Lord also spoke of this practice as He said: “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13). If the use of ashes for repentance was forbidden for Christians, why would Christ mentioned of it as a way of repentance?! A New Testament author also wrote that the sprinkling of ashes could cleanse the bodies from impurities, as he stressed: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh (Hebrew 9:13) . . .”
Because of its scriptural significance, the early Christians continued the practice of using ashes for the same symbolic reason. In his book, De Poenitentia, Tertullian (c. 160-220) prescribed that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his “The History of the Church” how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession. In the Middle Ages (at least by the time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?” To which the dying person replied, “I am content.” In all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality and penance is clear. When, towards the end of the first millennium, the discipline of public penance was dropped, the beginning of Lent, seen as a general penitential season, was marked by sprinkling ashes on the heads of all.
Furthermore, the ashes used are made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula was introduced and given first place: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
NOTE: The old formula, based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, reminds the Christians of their sinfulness and mortality and thus, implicitly, of their need to repent in time; and the newer formula only makes explicit what was only implicit in the old.
But remember, repentance must not only be in an outward appearance but must be mixed with an inner repentance and conversion of the heart. In the book of Isaiah (58:5-7), God says:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Our Lord Jesus reminded His disciples:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
And the Church counsels her children:
“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (CCC 1430).
FAST WITH A TRUE FASTING AND REPENT WITH A TRUE REPENTANCE; FOR THE REWARD OF ETERNAL LIFE IS AT HAND.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn to Christ and sin no more.”