Why do Catholics wear ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 21, February 2012 | Category:   Liturgy
Ashes
Second in a series about Lent. The first time you hear it, it's disconcerting: "Ma'am (or Sir), there's some dirt on your face." No one wants to be thought careless in matters of hygiene! But after a few years, wearing ashes in public on Ash Wednesday seems almost natural. It invites opportunities to witness to what you believe as you explain it's no accidental smudge on your forehead but a deliberate decision: to be marked with the knowledge of what your mortality really means.

Ashes are an ancient sign of mortification. Often associated with the wearing of sackcloth-a harsh woven-hair fabric used for grain bags-any occasion that warranted the expression of grief, penitence, or supplication might involve scattering ashes, rolling in them, or smearing them on one's person. Such reverse adornment defined the humble spirit of the wearer, and both men and women might employ this sign in times of self-denial. In addition, the shaving of the head or beard might accompany such gestures, and fasting as well. Anyone reluctant to be signed with ashes annually might consider the alternatives!

The prophets recommended such signs when the evil of the times required it. Daniel himself adopted prayer, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes during the period of Israel's exile. In the gospels Jesus reprimands unrepentant Jewish cities by comparing them to pagan cities that would have long ago donned sackcloth and ashes in shame for similar crimes. The message is clear: A definite outward sign of penitence is a bold first step in the actual conversion of the human heart.

So Catholics begin the annual season of their repentance by adopting the mark of ashes. I say "begin": 40 days of fasting, prayer, and charity is expected to proceed from there. Many have noted that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy when they stand on street corners bearing the signs of fasting for all to see. Instead Jesus advises his disciples to wash their faces and anoint their heads while fasting. That is to avoid the temptation to be seen as doing good-and to be rewarded on the spot by the good opinion of others.

In a social climate impressed by the appearance of piety, it would be best to hide such signs. Modern culture, however, is more dazzled by bling, than by the rosary dangling from your rearview mirror. The effect of ashes serves more to remind oneself "that we are dust, and to dust we shall return." With the urgency of mortality clinging to us in every hour, it's wisdom to heed the call each Ash Wednesday not to waste any time but to "repent, and receive the Good News."

Scripture
Isaiah 58:5-6; Jeremiah 6:26; Ezekiel 27:30-31; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 11:21; 6:5-7, 16-18; 23:5; Luke 10:13; also Genesis 3:19

Online
St. Leo the Great on Lent, 5th century homily

Books
Forty Days Plus Three: Daily Reflections for Lent and Holy Week by John J. McIlhon (Liturgical Press, 1989)
Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, Vol. 2: Lent (Liturgical Press, 1993)

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