This coming week, on Wednesday February 17, we mark Ash Wednesday and thus begins our annual Lenten journey. The symbolic act commonly associated with Ash Wednesday is the Imposition of Ashes. And although Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, many people flock to our churches to receive ashes.
The custom of imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday has Biblical roots. Job, for instance used ashes as a sign of repentance: “Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, too, describe the use of ashes as a sign of repentance. In the description of the sending of the 72, Jesus instructs them to kick the sand of their sandals if they are not welcomed in a given city, and to warn them the Kingdom is at hand. Then Jesus compares the fate of these cities with that of the sinful cities of Tyre and Sidon saying that “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” (Matthew 11:21).
The liturgical custom of sprinkling ashes which is also penitential in nature originates in the Order of Penitents established during the fourth c. This Order or group of people consisted of those Christians who had committed grave sins and had been admitted into the order by the bishop. The Order of Penitents predates the Sacrament of Reconciliation and was the only recourse Christians had to salvation after they broke their baptismal promises. The rite of admission to the Order of Penitents which happened at the beginning of Lent involved the imposition of ashes by the bishop. When this order was superseded by the Sacrament of Reconciliation the imposition of ashes was retained and expanded. Recognizing that all are sinners in need of repentance all Christians started to present themselves for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
The earliest mention of the existence of Ash Wednesday, known as Dies Cinerum or the Day of Ashes dates back to the 10th century. It is believed that the custom itself was observed as early as the eight century.
The imposition of ashes still has a penitential character, even today. With this public act, we indicate that we are in need of forgiveness and that we are committing ourselves to 40 days of fasting, prayer, and charity in preparation of the celebration of the Sacred Triduum.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the palms used during the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion. In the Middle Ages these palms were burned during elaborate ceremonies. Today, this is done in a more simple manner.
In the United States, ashes are usually placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross. In other countries such as Italy they are sprinkled on the crown of a penitent’s head. This is actually the proper way of doing this as the ritual for the Imposition if Ashes calls for the minister to “place ashes on the head” of the people. During the Pandemic, which prevents us from signing the forehead with ashes, we will sprinkle ashes on the crown of people’s head, though not as generously as in Europe. We will just use a pinch.
While imposing the ashes, the minister can use one of two formulas. The second option, which is the more ancient of the two, is inspired by the words God spoke when expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise thus subjecting them to death: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). This option simply reminds us of our sinful nature yet does not invite us to do anything about it.
The first and more recent option is taken from the first chapter of Mark: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” After the death of John, Jesus began his public ministry announcing the Kingdom of God inviting people to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” These words spoken by Jesus and repeated by the minister are a clear invitation to action. Knowing that we are sinners, we are called to repent and to live according to the Gospel. Or in the words of the Prophet Joel in the First Reading on Ash Wednesday, Lent is an invitation to “return to God with all your heart.”
May this Lenten Season and the entire Paschal Cycle be a blessing for all of us.