There are two possible admonitions that the priest can give us on Ash Wednesday. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" has always been my favorite as it reminds us of our mortality and reliance on God's mercy and love. It seemed to fit perfectly with the sacramental itself and the sign of the cross placed upon our foreheads.
At the church where we now attend, my pastor always says, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." The Gospel, the Good News, in a nutshell is that Jesus died to save us; thus the sign of the cross. I get that. But what does "repent" have to do with ashes? It just didn't seem to make much sense to me until I began to realize the usage of ashes in the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, ashes are a sign of mourning and repentance, an act of humility. The ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting was often accompanied with the wearing of ashes on the head. It symbolized grief, especially grief over sin that causes division from God and destruction of self as an individual and a nation.
In the sixth chapter of Joshua, the new leader of the Israelites after their massive victory over Jericho, sent 3,000 men to conquer the land of Ai. The Israelite army, however, was routed. Joshua immediately knew that God was no longer with them, that they must have offended Him. So Joshua and the elders "fell face down to the ground before the Ark of the Lord and sprinkled dust on their heads" (Josh 6:7). God then revealed to Joshua that one man, Acham, had taken "devoted things" from Jericho, disobeying God's command. This story reveals the communal aspect of sin: the sin of one man caused suffering for the whole nation of Israel. Likewise, the prayers, humility and sorrow shown by Joshua and the elders helped bring about reconciliation and a return of God's favor.
This year, the Year of Mercy, may our ashes bring about a reflection on the seriousness of our own sins and the damage they cause not only us but those around us and all the Church. This Lent, may we be reconciled to God and one another.
In the midst of all his sufferings, Job had three friends come to console him. Though their intentions may have been good, they spoke falsely about God. When Job began listening to and falling for their lies, God had to set him straight and remind Job of His love and power. "Then Job answered the Lord and said:
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
I have dealt with great things that I do not understand;
things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.
I had heard of you by word of mouth,
but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:1-3).
Ashes were the sign Job used to show his sorrow and humility before God.
This year, may our ashes humble us. During Lent, may we be convicted of our own littleness and the greatness of our God.
In Ester, when Mordecai learned that Haman had the king sign a decree ordering the destruction of the Jews, "he tore his garments, put on sackcloth and ashes, and walked through the city crying loudly and bitterly. Likewise in each provinces, wherever the king's legal enactment reached, the Jews went into deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament; they all slept on sackcloth and ashes" (Ester 4:1&3). God heard the prayers of the Jews and rewarded their fasting and penance. By giving courage to Ester who in turn trusted in Him, God foiled the plans of Haman, thus saving the Jews from annihilation.
This year, may God, through the blessing of our ashes, give us courage to do the right thing and stand up for our faith. May our Lent lead us to hope in God for our salvation.
When Jonah finally made it to Nivevah and prophesied its dismise because of its evil deeds, the King "rose from his throne, laid aside his royal robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes" (Jonah 3:6). Moreover, he proclaimed to his people that no one, "neither man nor beast shall taste anything; they shall not eat nor shall they drink water" (vs. 7). It is interesting to note that God gave them 40 days to repent and make reparation. "When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil He had threatened to do them; he did not carry it out" (vs. 10). Fasting and doing penance enabled the Ninevites to experience God's wonderful forgiveness and compassion.
May the ashes we receive this Lent be just the beginning of our 40 days of fasting and sacrifice, done for the love of God and in thanksgiving for His great grace bestowed upon us through the Blood of His Son.
Repent and believe in the Gospel!
Copyright 2016 Kelly Guest
About the Author
God has given Kelly lots of wonderful opportunities to follow Him. She was a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia in Nashville, an education coordinator for a Catholic Charities' program for pregnant teens, a middle school teacher, a director of religious education and is now a youth minister. Her most challenging and rewarding calling, though, is wife and mother of ten children. What she has learned, she blogs at CatholicMom.com.