What’s with the ashes?
Why do Catholics place ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday? This is what I learned from the mass today.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. It starts the 40 days of penance through fasting, prayer and abstinence, as we commemorate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the priest in the mass, Ash Wednesday is a day of “Remembering.” It is an important aspect of our spiritual life because it is a day when we strip off our self-righteousness and remember that we are all sinners and should therefore repent for all our wrong doings.
In his homily, the priest shares that there are people who are so focused in doing higher means of spiritual development like meditation or following the 7 Mansions of St. Teresa of Avila, that they forget the basics of their faith. He shared that there are people who think that ashes are from the soil in the church’s backyard. He corrected this poor notion by explaining that the ashes are collected from the burned remains of palm branches and leaves used from last year’s Palm Sunday.
The act of placing ashes in our forehead symbolizes death and repentance. As Abraham said, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), we acknowledge our impending deaths. We need to be prepared for it by living according to God’s ways. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of contrition. That is why, as the priest places the ashes, he says “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Wearing the ashes in our forehead is a public admission of our sinfulness and a pledge to be better and resist temptation.
In the liturgy, the placing of the ashes should be done after the homily but for practical reasons, it is accepted that the placing of the ashes are done at the end of the mass. If we place the ashes after the liturgy of the word, the priest and lay minister’s hands and finger nails would be full of ash in time for communion. He injected humor into the thought of having the crowd receive communion with ash-filled hostia.
The priest also pointed out that placing ash in our forehead is symbolic but what is more important is listening to the homily and understanding why we do it in the first place. He commented on late comers, who sometimes are excited to only have the ashes shown on their foreheads without fully understanding the importance of these ashes. It is better to not have ashes in our foreheads but understand the meaning of this event then to wear really big ashes on your foreheads without a clue to what this day really means.
He also answered the question “why” we do this. We do this, because we, humans, are easy to forget the Lord. We do this to remember Him. He even shared a funny story about how humans tend to forget, using married couples as an example. Husbands, accordingly, usually forget that they are married that is why they tend to have affairs. The wives are at fault, he jokingly debates, because the wives do not remind their husbands that they have wives. In humorous fashion, he advised the wives in the crowd to start reminding their husbands that they are married. Before they sleep at night, the wives can give their husbands a loving kiss and say “you have a wife.” In the morning, just before the husband goes out the door on his way to work, the wife can give another kiss and say that “you are married.” When the husband arrives at work and texts his wife to inform his whereabouts, the wife can reply by thanking the husband for informing her and reminding him once again that he has a wife. The priest also jokingly added that the wives can also place reminders on their husband’s wallet, handkerchief, and brief. Just so they won’t forget.
After the laughter died down, the priest shared that we celebrate the Ash Wednesday every year to constantly remind our forgetful selves. He even shared a personal story. When he entered the seminary, he was sure that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be a priest. That is why he asked his mother to help him. He asked her to remind him every time he loses strength. He likened this to us asking for God’s mercy this Lenten season. We acknowledge that we cannot do this alone, that is why we are asking God to remind us of who we are. We are asking Him to help us not hurt Him anymore. We are asking Him to help us control our desires, purify our hearts and genuinely allow ourselves to be changed.
Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.