“I am but dust and ashes!”
— Genesis 18: 27
Recently I came across a humorous graphic by Bill Donaghy entitled A Catholic Guide to Ashes. What follows is a series of examples of the signs priests place on worshippers’ foreheads during Ash Wednesday services. These include a pristine cross labelled “First in Line,” a massive cross entitled, “Father’s Revenge,” a messy little blur called “The Hasty,” and a barely there impression that says, simply, “Load Toner.” I will leave it to you to discover “the Hindu,” “the Mini,” “the Hipster,” and “the Rorschach,” though I’m sure you can guess what they might look like.
Over the years I have had any number of queries from non-Christians about the messy smudge on my forehead and like many, I suspect, my explanations about these have ranged from the cryptic to the comic, but as with so many things, I never sat down to understand where this tradition actually came from. In the Bible references to ashes are plentiful, though the most famous such example, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” only appears in The Book of Common Prayer.
The application of ashes to foreheads has been a common practice for over 1,200 years to mark the dies cinerum or day of ashes. The Gregorian Sacramentary, dating back to the eighth century, refers to this practice where the faithful are marked with ashes derived from the burning of the previous year’s palms. Typically the practice is linked to the idea of penance. And even though Ash Wednesday is not referred to in the Bible, there are nevertheless over 40 references to ashes in connection with the practice of mourning and penance. As Job tells us, “Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes” (42: 5–6).
For me Ash Wednesday was always connected to fasting since it marked the beginning of Lent. And it was a strangely popular gathering time at mass even though it wasn’t a holy day of obligation. Even as a school-aged child I found the ritual meaningful, and once I even replicated the practice by dipping my hand in the long dead remains of a fireplace. To say my parents weren’t impressed with the resulting charcoal carnage that covered not just my forehead but also every article of clothing I was wearing would be an understatement. In my heart of hearts, however, it seemed like the right thing to do. And perhaps my seriousness was appropriate, because that’s what Ash Wednesday is about. It’s about acknowledging our Lord and it’s about preparing for a sombre 40-day journey toward Easter, where our hope, through the resurrection, inevitably rises from the ashes.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.