Ashes and the Words that Accompany Them

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance and the beginning of Lent. On this day, Catholics will “get their ashes” – we will all go to Mass or another service at which our foreheads will be marked with a cross made with ashes. As the cross is being made, we will hear the priest or other minister distributing ashes say to us either: “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Why do we get marked with ashes and why do we hear the words we hear?

The Old Testament makes frequent reference to the use of ashes to express sorrow for ones sins and faults. Job says to God, Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah, calling his people to repentance instructs, “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.” The prophet Daniel says “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” And so, as we begin this 40-day period of Lent, we express our repentance for our sins.

The words “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” come from the book of Genesis; they are part of the words uttered by God to Adam and Eve after the fall. In the words of Pope John Paul II during his 1996 Ash Wednesday homily, “Original sin and original sentence. By the act of the first Adam, death entered the world and every descendant of Adam bears the sign of death within him. All generations of humanity share in this inheritance.”

So we hear these words to remind us of death. But it is the alternative words that accompany our receipt of ashes that remind us of what overcomes death. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” These are the works in the Gospel of Mark with which Jesus begins his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Although we hear only one of these two formulations when we get our ashes, it is only together that they provide a complete message. It is true that we are sinners and that – left to our own devices we share in the inheritance of death. But we are loved sinners. And because of God’s love for us, God offers a path out of death – a path to new life, life everlasting. And Christ is that path.

May you have a blessed Lent.

P.S. I’ve collected a number of links to sites with on-line Lenten resources here.