In Genesis 3:19 we hear God tell us “for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return,” but nowadays, when someone dies, they are rushed from deathbed to funeral home to be embalmed and to be worked over by a make-up artist so that that “dusty reality” is hidden from us. Their deaths are spoken of as almost an embarrassment; “he passed,” they say, or “he is no longer with us.” These comforting but sterile luxuries weren’t an option in the past when plagues felled so many people that there weren’t enough survivors to bury them, when bodies had to be stored all winter until the ground was soft enough to dig, when most of the children a woman bore died before they were able to grow up. In our culture, with our medicines and “funeral sciences,” we are afraid to look at death, and we are a poorer people because of it. No matter how long science can prolong life, no matter how much embalming fluid is pumped into a corpse, nature will have her way. This is Truth. And when nature has her way, we can either rest in the knowledge that the ultimate Victor is Christ, Our Lord, Who walked out of His tomb 2,000 years ago and offers resurrection to us, or we can believe that decay is all that is left. This is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is the day for being reminded of and contemplating our mortality, of which Ecclesiasticus 1 reminds us:
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh…
When a new Pope processes to St. Peter’s Basilica to offer his first Mass as Pope, the procession stops three times and, at each stop, a piece of flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the words, “Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” (“Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”), to remind him not only that he is a mere man, but as a man, a mere mortal whose end is like the end of all other men. The things of this world are transient, and Christians must always keep one eye on the world to come.
Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes on the forehead today: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our Western culture now desperately tries to euphemize away, and that we are radically dependent on — solely dependent on — Jesus Christ to overcome this fate.
They are like a yearly contemplation of the tombstone inscribed with:
Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
While death should, of course, be avoided as the evil it is, we should accept the reality of it with the attitude behind the words attributed to the great Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse: “It is a good day to die” (“Hoka hey”). Death should not be feared in itself; what should be approached with trepidation is the judgment that follows — not because God is a malicious Father who wants to inflict pain, but because He is as just as He is merciful. We need to repent, accept the reality of death, and not only consider our judgment, but be ready for it.
The Blessing and Disposition of the Ashes
The ashes are made by the burning of palms from last year’s Palm Sunday — palms that were waved in victory and praise. That the ashes are made from burnt palms shows us the link between victory, and penance and mortification which ashes have always symbolized:
Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.
Before the Mass, the blessing of the ashes begins with an antiphon and a verse of a psalm begging God’s grace and mercy. Then come four prayers which express what the ashes symbolize:
1. To be a spiritual help for all who confess their sins.
2. To secure pardon of sins for those who receive the ashes.
3. To give us the spirit of contrition.
4. To give us the grace and strength to do penance.
After the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water and incenses them, he puts some on his own forehead, and then imposes the ashes on the people. In Latin countries, such as Italy, this is done by sprinkling the ashes over the congregants. In other places, including almost all of the English-speaking world, this means that he will smear the ashes on the foreheads of those present, the head being the seat of pride. He puts them on our foreheads in the shape of a Cross to remind us of our hope, and as he does so, he says the words of Genesis 3:
Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
We make no response to these words; we simply return to our pews.
Following the disposition of the ashes come two Antiphons and a Response. Then the priest says another prayer for protection in the coming combat, and begins the Mass.
After we leave the church, we leave the ashes on our foreheads until they wear off naturally from the course of the day’s activities. They are a public witness to those things our society does not wish to embrace: the reality of death, penance for sin, and the hope of resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Note that either today or on Passion Sunday, which begins Passiontide, the statues in your church will be veiled in purple cloth and will remain so until the Easter Vigil, when, in the most stunning liturgy of the entire Church year, they are unveiled while bells ring!
In places where palms can’t be found for use on Palm Sunday, it is often the custom for Ash Wednesday to bring pussy willow branches inside and place them in vases of water — in the same way that cherry branches are brought in Pussy willowon the Feast of St. Barbara — so the catkins will bud and stay fresh for use in place of palms on the Sunday before Easter. Even where palms are available, this is a lovely custom that reminds us of where the Season of Lent is headed…
Because today begins the Lenten fast, a ritual is made in some places of saying farewell to Carnival. All over Spain, this custom has — paradoxically, given the vast amounts of fish eaten during Lent — come to include the burial of the sardine — “Entierro de la Sardina.” A mock funeral is held with “mourners,” dressed in black and dramatically “weeping,” forming a procession through the streets behind a coffin carrying a poor little fish. This sardine can be real or an effigy, life-sized or large, but once at its grave, it is ceremoniously buried amid great “lamentations.” This sort of ceremony is held in other places on Holy Saturday, when, for example, in Poland, a herring is buried to mark the end of the Lenten fast — and the end of endless fish dinners!
In many places in Italy, Lent is personified by the effigy of an old woman that is displayed during Lent, and then burned at the stake (sometimes after a “trial”) at the end of the season. One such custom is that of hanging the effigy from a rope between two balconies all throughout the Lenten season, and attaching to it a bottle of wine, an orange, and six cookies — one of which is removed on each of the six Sundays of Lent until no more remain. Such a custom serves as a way to mark the time ’til Easter, in the same way that Advent calendars do for Christmas. A family could get very imaginative here and think of other ways to count down the days of penance. One could have a system of counting down the forty-six days of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, inclusive), the six Sundays of Lent, or what not. Or one could simply hang a little “Lent calendar” (will open in new browser window) on the fridge and let the children place a sticker on each day as it ends. Another clever way of counting down the penitential days to Easter is to have the children make a paper chain of forty links. On each link, have them write down an act of kindness, penance, or prayer that they can reasonably do. On each day of Lent (Sundays don’t count!), have them tear off a chain and perform the act written on it. Counting the remaining links will let them know how many more days of penance there will be. If one would like to also know how many actual calendar days are left until Easter Sunday, one could insert a different-colored chain to represent the Lord’s Day (i.e., the first four links would be one color, and the 5th link would be differently colored to represent Sunday. From there on out, every 7th link would match the 5th link in color).
Most importantly, today is a day of fasting and abstinence, a day to recall the most profound truths of our existence. During the day today (everyday, actually), meditate on the fact of your mortality — what it means, and how to avoid eternal death by believing, repenting, and obeying the Father. Consider the image of a sparrow in Winter used by the Venerable Bede (d. 735) in the thirteenth chapter of the second book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede attributes the following words to one of King Edwin’s men who was trying to convince the King to listen to the Gospel that was being preached:
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.