On Ash Wednesday ashes are “imposed” in a solemn ritual at masses across the world. The ceremony is unlike any liturgical action performed throughout the rest of the Church’s year.
The ashes are made from the palm crosses that were blessed and handed out the previous Palm Sunday. They are collected and burned and the remains are ground up into powder. I make my own each year.
During the Mass the ashes are blessed by the priest before they are “imposed”. In a procession people step forward and the priest puts the ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross, saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is taken from Genesis 3 v 19.
What does the ash symbolise?
1. Death: We are reminded of our mortality, for when we die our bodies decompose, or “they return to dust”. So we hear Abraham say to God “I am but dust and ashes” in Genesis 18:27. Whether death is just around the corner or many years hence, one thing is certain, we are going to die! So on Ash Wednesday we are asked to face our mortality, but not in a morbid and hopeless way, but in the faith of Christ crucified – which is why the ashes are imposed with a cross. Christ has died and redeemed us so that we have real hope. Yes we will die, but by the grace of Christ we can live beyond this death.
And indeed is death is coming we need to be prepared for it. Let death not catch any of us unprepared! Let us be prepared by living God’s ways.
2. Repentance: When the prophet Jonah warned the Ninevites that God was going to visit judgement upon them for their wickedness (their depravity and corruption) the people of Ninevah covered themselves with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance – they showed visibly that they were turning away from their evil ways.
So ashes are a plea to God for mercy, pardon and forgiveness. And they are also a public confession of our sin. Other people can see that we admit out sinfulness publicly, but also crucially that we bring them to the cross of Christ. We are sorry for our sins but we know they can only be forgiven through the cross of Christ, the grace He won for us once for all.
(Tip: If someone comments on your ashes, use the opportunity to explain to them something of your faith and why you do it.)
So we begin Lent by publicly saying sorry for our sins, and that we want to use Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts and control our desires – and thus to grow in holiness, and be better prepared to celebrate Easter with joy filling our hearts.
Fr Ian 16th February 2015