The significance of Ash Wednesday
By Juan Rodriguez - DHT
"Repent and turn to the Gospel" or “You are Dust and to Dust you will return”, that's what the priest may say to you when mark you with the sign of the cross on your forehead with Ashes. Some youth and young adults do not understand what the Ashes mean for us as Christians. I have seen many people race to the sanctuary for ashes and then dash out to the streets, going about their merry ways, never noticing that it is a sign of repentance rather than dirt on their foreheads. In this writing, I will help explain the significance of the Ashes from the Jewish Tradition, and lead you in understanding it from our Christian Tradition, or how we practice it.
In the Sacred Scriptures it is said that we are created from dust (Genesis 2:7). Being that we are from dust, the Jewish people saw that the human person was limited and subject to the Love and Justice of the Creator. This helped them to grow closer to the Divine, and to understand their weakness because of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. According to the Jewish Tradition, when any person had sinned, they would put Dust or Ash on their head, to show how low they have become. Dust and Ash are symbolic to repentance in Sacred Scripture, it showed ones desire before God to ask for forgiveness. In the Book of Jonah (chap 3), the Prophet goes out to Nineveh by Yahweh’s command, to give them a message that in forty days more “Nineveh will be destroyed.” God saw their wickedness, but since the people believed in God they called for a fast and put sackcloth over their heads. Even the King himself heard of the news, and put sackcloth over his head and sat in ashes. The reason for this was not to get dirty, but to remind themselves of their sinfulness.
The word Dirt in Greek comes from the word “Humus.” From this word is actually where we get the words, humility, humbleness, humorous, or even human. It is to say that you and I come from dirt as Genesis states. However, we, like Adam and Eve, are made into the likeness of the True God. So the people of Nineveh repented in the very dirt they were created, reminding themselves of the beginning, “You are Dust and Unto Dust you will return.”
Although the Jewish people put dirt on their head and prayed for repentance and change, dust was also used for mourning a great loss (Genesis 37:34-35). For the loss of a child, friend, property, or something of great importance, the person used ash as a sign of sadness. It was also to show humility before God, who has given them this gift as it was taken away.
But in all things, God never leaves his children to dust. The writer of the Psalms pleads with God and at the same time praises Yahweh for blessing him. He states, “When you hide your face, they become afraid; you take away their breath and they return to dust. (Psalms 104:29)” The Psalmist speaks of sin which turns God's face away, but He then shows the person a sign of repentance. God draws out what is failing in the person, and destroys him entirely, to the very dirt he was once created from. Then the Psalmist writes on saying, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and the face of the earth is renewed. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works! (Psalms 104:30-31)” The psalmist explains that the person and all creation is made new again. This is what we call conversion, starting from scratch, but with the grace of God. He then goes on and explains how the Lord changes the land by simply touching it, making it His dwelling place. Is this not what God wants of us, to make of us His dwelling place? The Psalmist goes on in praise to Yahweh, as he ends with these final words, “Bless the Lord my soul! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104: 35) This is the same praise that Mary gave to God as she said, “My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! (Luke 1:46)”
“But what about Ash Wednesday, what is the connection between the Jewish tradition and our Catholic tradition?” There’s no difference with the Tradition, because we as Catholics get our traditions from the Jewish tradition. The only difference is that we celebrate it in Jesus, who is our Lord and Savior. The reason the priest puts the Ashes on our forehead is to remind us of our Cross. We must carry it with Love, and never give it up for worldly things (Isaiah 44:20-ff). It also reminds us of our faith in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lastly, Ashes also reminds us of our Baptism. It was in your baptism that you died to yourself and rose in Christ, so the priest is calling you to die again to yourself and come back to the Gospel. Notice how the symbolism of Ashes goes hand and hand with Baptism, because both are signs of renewal. The difference between Ashes and Baptism is that one is a Sacramental which the Church blesses us with, and the other is a Sacrament, which God sanctifies us through the Church, which is the custodian of the Sacraments.
In conclusion, we understand Ashes, according to the Jewish tradition, as a sign of repentance to God and a sign of mourning. For the Catholic Christian, Ash is a sign of repentance to Christ, who we believe to be God Incarnate. He the One who calls each and everyone of us to a deeper and personal walk in His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. It also reminds us of our Baptism, dying to ourselves and rising with Christ. In this we submit our lives to Christ who will mold us into His life, bringing us to dust and raising us up into glory, so that we can say together, “Bless the Lord my soul! Praise the Lord!”