A dark smudge of ashes on the forehead sets Christians apart on Ash Wednesday. Even celebrities have been seen on television marked with this visible sign of repentance. Catholics tend to believe — erroneously — that attendance at an Ash Wednesday Mass is obligatory.
“Ashes are a natural result of death and destruction,” said Father Thomas Shoemaker, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne. “When a tree is destroyed in a fire, all that is left is ash. When a body corrupts in the grave, eventually nothing is left but ash. Ashes are left when something living, something holy, something vibrant, is destroyed. The ashes of Lent remind us that one day each of us will face death.”
The use of ashes also alludes to baptism, according to Father Shoemaker.
“In baptism, we are washed clean of sin and we take on a spotless white garment. When baptized Christians are later marked with ashes, the symbolism is clear: We have brought sin back into our lives and need to be washed clean again. … Our baptismal purity has been stained.” Only through penance and by the mercy of God is this cleansing possible.
The symbolism of ashes
In Jewish tradition, ashes have long been a sign of repentance and mourning. Dirtying one’s face, hair or clothes with them, along with tearing garments, was a way of humbling oneself before God. Father Shoemaker points to Old Testament examples of their use, including when Joshua prostrated himself before the Lord seeking answers to why the Israelites lost a terrible battle. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai donned sackcloth and ashes after learning of the imminent doom of the Jewish people at the hands of Haman. Even the king of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire, a Gentile whose nation was often hostile toward the Israelites, covered himself with ashes in repentance when Jonah warned him that his city would be destroyed if the people did not amend their evil ways. In all these moments, God heard the cries of those who called out to Him and in His mercy, brought about a holy outcome.
Along with the use of ashes and tearing garments to signify repentance are other traditional measures, such as fasting and wearing clothing specifically meant for discomfort. Fasting is, of course, still required of most Catholics during Lent and is a means of growing in one’s faith, although the requirements have changed over the years, becoming less restrictive than in previous centuries.
Ashes have endured in Catholic tradition because of their Jewish roots. “Since the early centuries of Christianity, we have continued to use ashes in the same way, as a reminder of death and a reminder of the need to turn away from sin,” Father Shoemaker commented. He explained that in early Christianity, a person could seek forgiveness from the local bishop for serious sins and be admitted into the Order of Penitents. “The bishop would sprinkle the person with ashes and give a penance, which would be carried out over time in a public manner.”
Though public penance has fallen out of favor, even medieval rulers were often subject to it. Future Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV walked to Canossa in 1077 and stood outside Pope Gregory VII’s residence for three days, barefoot and wearing a hair shirt, to implore the pope to lift his sentence of excommunication. Henry eventually invaded Rome and replaced Gregory with Antipope Clement III, however, so his status as a penitent was probably due to political reasons rather than genuine contrition.
Father Shoemaker continued: “By the sixth century, we have records of parishes marking the heads of whole congregations, not just the particular group of penitents. By the 11th century, the practice had become pretty much universal in the Western Church. As Lent began, everyone was marked with ashes.”
Where do the ashes come from?
According to Brian MacMichael, director of Worship for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the Roman Missal prescribes making the ashes out of blessed branches from the previous year. In most instances, palm branches are used, but olive or other native plant branches are sometimes substituted, depending on the church’s locale.
Following annual Palm Sunday celebrations, where palm branches are blessed and distributed to the faithful, like other blessed religious items, the branches cannot be thrown away but must be properly disposed of. This can be done either by burning or burying the old palm.
“It has been a longstanding custom to burn the palms from Palm Sunday to produce the ashes for Ash Wednesday,” Father Shoemaker stated. “The palms we use to remember the children of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus are now burned. These ashes remind us that we haven’t always welcomed Him.”
St. Charles requests that parishioners bring last year’s palms to the church before the start of Lent. St. Charles is fortunate to have a fire pit at the youth house, which is utilized for this purpose — teaching young Catholics about the practice of burning palms.
“After some explanation of what this is about and prayer, we begin the fire,” said Father Shoemaker. He explained that the process takes a couple of hours, involving volunteers who help stir the fire and gather any palm bits that escape. Once the ashes are cooled, they are put in jars for the next year.
MacMichael knows of several churches that buy ashes from liturgical goods stores, though, preferring the finely-ground powder that these manufacturers can provide to the prickly ash that can sometimes result from burning palms themselves.
A new methodology
As with many things throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ash Wednesday has been subjected to adjustments. Pope Francis has asked that ashes to be sprinkled over the heads of penitents this year, rather than placed on the forehead.
“This is very reminiscent of the Old Testament stories, and I think it will be a powerful new experience,” Father Shoemaker stated.
Traditionally, in the United States, a priest chooses one of two Lenten-appropriate phrases when applying ashes on a person’s forehead — “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This year, silence will accompany the sprinkling of ashes over a person’s head.
No matter how a parish procures its ashes or which phrase the priest uses to mark a person’s forehead, the significance of the ashes remains the same — a sign of contrition before the throne of God and a symbol of all people’s impending departure from this life.
“Joshua and his men tried to win the battle on their own with no regard to God,” recalled Father Shoemaker. “We, too, have sometimes left God out of our lives. We also need to repent and receive ashes. A life without God is a life that leads only to death.”
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