by Fr. William Rock, FSSP
From time immemorial, the strewing of ashes or dust on oneself was a sign of sorrow.
There are numerous examples of this in the Old Testament. Scripture tells us that Joshua and the leaders of the Tribes did so (Jos 7:6). The Prophet Jeremiah directs that the people should mourn in this manner (Jer 6:26). The Prophet Ezekiel also makes reference to this practice (Eze 27:30).
This custom, moreover, was not confined to the Hebrews. Job (Job 16:16), his friends (Job 2:12), and the Ninevites (Jon 3:6) – who are mentioned in the fourth prayer blessing the Ashes on Ash Wednesday – all gentiles, had similar rituals.
In the Iliad (xviii, 23), when he learned of the death of Patroclus, Achilles “took the dark dust and strewed it over his head and defiled his fair face, and on his fragrant tunic the black ashes fell. And himself in the dust lay outstretched…”
But why is ash, or dust, such a fitting symbol for expressing sorrow? This may be because each is matter unadorned, matter without any pretension. It is basic, simple, almost elemental. And this is how one feels when one experiences deep sorrow. One feels undone, stripped of everything, stripped down to one’s very core. There is a correspondence, then, between ash or dust and the experience of deep sorrow which makes these a fitting sign of sorrow.
In line with this symbolism and the aforementioned historical practices, the use of ash or dust was adopted by Latin Christians as a sign of sorrow: in particular, as a sign of sorrow for one’s sins. For its part, a proper, healthy Christian sorrow for sins includes repentance, a resolve to reorder one’s life away from sin and towards God. In this light, ash or dust is also a fitting symbol of this Christian repentance, as it brings to mind the ultimate destiny of all those material things which, by sinning, one places before or in the place of God.
No matter how great these material things might be, they can and will be reduced eventually to ash, dust, or small particles by rust, moth, worm, hammer, and so forth.
When the Ashes for Ash Wednesday are prepared by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, some of the palms are fashioned as crosses, flowers, or other creative designs. But they are all consumed in the fire, they are all are reduced to ash, and once reduced, one can no longer tell the difference between the simple Palms and the fashioned palms, no matter how ornate the fashioned palms might have been.
The same is true for human bodies as well. The worm and other factors will reduce every human body to dust, no matter how beautiful they might be, no matter how richly adorned, no matter how fit. This sentiment is expressed in the formula traditionally used during the imposition of Ashes – “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” And, if somehow, anything survives intact until the end times, all will be reduced to ash by the universal fire foretold by St. Peter in his Second Epistle (2 Pet 3:7, 12).
By the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, the Church marks her children with a sign which should express externally their internal dispositions of sorrow for sin and repentance therefrom. If the faithful, then, wish to receive their Ashes fruitfully, they would do well to cultivate this sorrow and repentance beforehand.
This will place them in the proper disposition not just to receive their Ashes, but also to spend well the Church’s forty-day period of penance during which they should make reparation for their sins and strive to order properly their relationships with God and material creatures.
Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently Assistant Pastor at Mater Misericordiae parish in Phoenix, AZ.
February 15, 2021