For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.
The Meaning and History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is that special day of the year which begins our Lenten journey. A starting point of 40 days of prayer, penance, and almsgiving as we Christians prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday – yay! But … before the celebration, we must experience our own calvary of sorts.
The word “Lent” is from an Old English term meaning “springtime.” By the second century, the term Lent was being used to describe the period of individual fasting, almsgiving, and prayer in preparation for Easter — the resurrection of our Lord. Among the early Christians of the first three centuries, only those aspiring for baptism (the catechumens) observed a defined period of preparation, and that time lasted only two or three days. But things were soon to change.
Lent in the Early Church
The idea of Lent being 40 days in length evolved over the next few centuries. Among the canons issued by the Council of Nicaea, the Church leaders made reference to Lent stating, “and let those synods be held, the one before Lent that the pure gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away, and let the second be held about autumn.” The language of this early canon validates that Lent had indeed by the fourth century been established and accepted by Mother Church. What is clear from historical documents, moreover, is that Christians indeed celebrated a season of Lent to prepare themselves for Resurrection Sunday and used a variety of ways to do so.
Lent involving a period of 40 days in length is not surprising as there are numerous biblical events that also involve a 40-day time frame. For example, Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving instructions from God for that number of days (see Exodus 24:18); Noah and his entourage were on the Ark waiting for the rains to tend for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4); and Elijah “walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8).
Most specifically and identifiably though, the 40 days of Lent identifies the time our Lord Jesus spent in the desert fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (540).
In the early Church, people fasted all 40 days of Lent (and some people still do!). While the Church teaches today that fasting is not only about what we eat but also about changing hearts, interior conversion and reconciliation back to God and with others, fasting from food and drink is still the biblical expectation of fasting. As Mother Church rightly points out though, living in an austere way and giving from our abundance to the poor is still of utmost importance during “the forty days in the desert.”
To this end, St. John Chrysostom (347-409) once said: “Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! … If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, envy him not! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by!” (Homily on the Statutes, III.11). Yes, fasting from food and drink is one thing during Lent — and arguably the main thing — but our charitable works is an extension of our responsibilities during this time of penance, abstinence, and sacrifice. Think of it like this, it’s not an ‘either/or’ thing but a ‘both/and’ thing!
What are the ashes for?
The Church has long used ashes as an “outward sign” or “mark” of humility, mourning, penance, and mortality. The Old Testament is filled with stories describing the use of ashes in such a manner.
In the Book of Job, Job repented before God: “Therefore, I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Daniel “turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Jonah preached conversion and repentance to the people of Nineveh: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jonah 3:6). And the maccabees army prepared for battle: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments” (1 Mac 3:47).
Ashes were imposed on the early catechumens (those coming into the Church and awaiting baptism). Confessed sinners of that era were also marked with ashes as part of the public penitential process. Other baptized Christians began asking to receive ashes in a manner similar to catechumens and penitents. Christian men had ashes sprinkled on their heads while ashes were used to trace a cross on the forehead of women. Thus, the use of ashes as the sign of penance, in readiness for Easter Sunday, quickly became a Church-wide practice and part of her tradition.
During the papacy of St. Gregory the Great, the practice was further expanded and is mentioned in the sixth-century Gregorian Sacramentary. Around the year 1000, Abbot Aelfric of the monastery of Eynsham, England wrote: “We read books both in the Old law and in the New that men who repented of their sins bestowed on themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten feast” (Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, 1881).
Eventually, this same rite of distributing ashes on the Wednesday that kick-starts Lent was recommended for universal use by Pope Urban II at the Synod of Benevento in 1091. Talk about history and tradition!
Ash Wednesday – Concluding Words
So then when we go to that early annual Mass on Ash Wednesday morning and receive blessed ashes on our forehead, we are in essence repeating a somber, pious act that our earliest brothers and sisters in Christ have done for over 1,500 years. Unbelievable! As The Liturgical Year, Septuagesima by Abbot Gueranger O.S.B. put it in the early 1800s, “We are entering, today, upon a long campaign of the warfare spoke of by the apostles: forty days of battle, forty days of penance. We shall not turn cowards … Let us listen to the eloquence of the solemn rite which opens our Lent. Let us go whither our mother leads us, that is, to the scene of the fall.”
Like all those who’ve traveled before us into this Lenten desert — into battle! — let us unhesitatingly embrace this invitation to surrender, sacrifice, and sanctify ourselves for the Lord. Let us use this time to train ourselves to turn away from sin and, as Jesus commanded, sin no more! Furthermore, let us never forget that we are a part of that great cloud of witnesses who throughout the ages, donned with ashes, proudly and publicly acknowledged that they were Christians — Christians who had sinned yet were determined to repent and grow in holiness.
Now joined with them in this annual and public acknowledgement once again, let us embrace the Lenten fact once more that we are indeed dust … and that it is to dust we shall return. In this humble profession of faith, let us also reverently and fearfully turn to God with pleas of sorrow and of hope; faithfully believing that while we follow Him through the proverbial desert of trial and temptation, He will and is leading us to everlasting victory. Thanks be to God!
Ash Wednesday is a call for us Christians to remember our earthly mortality and thus waste no time in repenting and believing in the Gospel message. The ashes in the sign of a Cross on our forehead is an outward sign of our need for a Savior and penance. In addition, it is a reminder to the soul that we will one day die a temporal death and thus mustn’t waste any time in seeking the Kingdom of God so we may one day live forever in Heaven with Christ our Lord and the Church Triumphant. Amen.
Have a wonderful Ash Wednesday and Lenten Season! We are praying for you.