Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten journey, when we enter into the solemn season of Lent and arm ourselves with the transformative practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in order to be one with our Lord Jesus in the redemptive mission of the Church. Through fasting and penance over the course of 40 days, Catholics are called to use the time of Lent as a means of turning from sin and returning to the embrace of the Father, year after year, modeling our journey after that of Christ’s solitary journey into the desert (Matthew 4:1-2)
So often, we Catholics are asked, “Why do you get ashes on your foreheads on Ash Wednesday?” Perhaps we don’t know the answer, since most of us have always received them since childhood without really learning about the history of this tradition.
At the start of the 2nd century, Christians were already observing Easter preparations with two days of fasting and penitence; this was later applied to all of Holy Week. By the year 325, the Council of Nicaea acknowledged a 40-day preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday was designated as the beginning of Lent and public penitence was required for those who had committed serious crimes. The practice of public penance faded, and the practice of imposing ashes on the faithful took its place.
Thus, the ashes we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a visible sign of our own personal commitment to transformation during Lent, in whatever ways we find achievable. For some, this is a relinquishment of something we enjoy, whether that is a favorite drink or snack, time on social media, or television viewing time. For others, it is giving up bad habits — something we also hope to continue after Lent. Receiving ashes on this important feast day not only marks the beginning of our Lenten journey, however; its meaning goes deeper.
Ashes are also a bold means of proclaiming to those in our communities that we are Catholic, if only for this one day of the year. On what other day of the year do people clearly know that we are not only Christians, but Catholic Christians, when we walk through grocery stores, sit in restaurants, or ride public transportation bearing ashes on our foreheads? This is not meant to be an outward sign of piety; rather, it is a visible means of bearing witness to the beautiful traditions of our faith.
Last year on Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Pietro Parolin presided over the customary Mass in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Sabina in place of Pope Francis, since the Holy Father was undergoing treatment for acute knee pain. On that day of fasting and prayer for Ukraine, Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his prepared homily read by Cardinal Parolin that “prayer, charity, and fasting are ‘medicines’ not only for ourselves but for all, and they can change history and are the principal ways for God to intervene in our lives and in the world.”
The Holy Father also advised the faithful to beware of “practicing piety in order to be seen and praised by others, when instead we should seek from the Father the ‘eternal, the true and ultimate reward, the purpose of our lives.’”
Our ashes, then, while a visible symbol, are truly meant to be a reminder to us of the inner transformations we must undergo while giving us a way to testify to our faith.
Symbolism and Transformation
Made from the burnt and ground palm leaves used on Palm Sunday during the previous liturgical year, these ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth that is at the very heart of our faith.
This theme appears repeatedly throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testament. From the book of Daniel, speaking of the Resurrection: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.” (Daniel 12:2) to Jesus repeatedly warning His disciples of His impending death and resurrection (Mark 9:31), this theme of death and resurrection is all too familiar.
Taking a closer look at our own lives, we can use this time to rise from our own ashes, so to speak, and transform those areas that desperately need healing. For some, it is mending a broken relationship or healing from grief. The Lenten season offers the perfect time to reach out to estranged family members and attempt to work toward reconciliation or to offer support to the bereaved.
On a larger scale, this can apply to communities reeling from tragedy. We all remember the pain and suffering felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and any community torn apart by rioting, civil unrest, or natural disasters can attest to the tremendous need for recovery and healing afterwards. Our communities rise from ashes when they make the deliberate decision to heal what is broken and to move forward, knowing that what they are resurrecting is worth the pain and suffering, rather than just discarding a relationship or a community bond because it has been damaged.
During this time of Lenten preparation, may we examine those areas in our lives that need healing and transformation. Let us resolve to rise from the ashes of our grief, our failures, and our weaknesses, knowing that when we place them at the foot of the Cross, our loving Savior can resurrect them into something new, something beautiful, and something enduring.
Image: Adobe Stock. By rahwik.
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.