When Joey was 3, we went as we normally do to the Ash Wednesday Mass in the evening at St. Edward’s. We all lined up for the distribution of ashes, and Joey who was walking by himself was first in line. He got up to the gentleman, stared with wide eyes at the thumb loaded with ashes reaching for his forehead, and shouted, to my horror and the amusement of everyone else, “NO HAIRCUT!” The ashes were placed mostly square on his little noggin. And as soon as we got back to our place in the pews, he proceeded to use his sleeve to wipe them off. Ah well. It was a memorable Ash Wednesday to be sure.
Ash Wednesday starts the Liturgical Season of Lent. We’ve all heard Lent is a Forty day time period before Easter. But Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter Sunday. Why?
Well there’s 2 reasons. One is we don’t “count” the 6 Sundays during Lent because each Sunday is a mini feast day. Some set aside their Lenten abstainings, others don’t.
The other reason is because while technically Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, the following Thursday, Friday, Saturday are before the 1st Sunday of Lent (3 days there) and Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are part of the Easter Triduum (3 more days). So either way, 46-6=40.
The number of 40 has some special meanings to both the Jewish people and Christians.
There were 40 days and nights of rain in the story of Noah’s Ark. Moses spent 40 day in the presence of God and Elijah traveled 40 days to find God. Nineveh 40 days to repent. And the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert. Forty, whether days or years, was the prescribed amount of time in Jewish tradition for preparation for doing works to receive God’s grace and blessings.
It’s this 40 days and nights of preparation Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert before he began teaching to the public, God’s workings so that we may receive the saving power of His Grace so that we maybe believe in Him and have eternal life with Him.
He was tempted by the Devil while he was out there. He refused to give into human temptations that lead to sin, the turning away from God who we should love with all our bodies, minds, and souls, by practicing the virtues of fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice.
Ashes on our foreheads also has roots in Jewish traditions. You can find it mentioned in many books of the Old Testament: Job, Esther, Daniel, Jonah, Jeremiah, Numbers, Maccabees. When the Jewish people were grieving and mourning usually the death of a loved one, or atoning they dusted themselves with ashes. They also wore sack-clothes that were rough and fasted when they were repenting or preparing themselves to be worthy of God’s graces and blessings. The ashes from a sacrifice (usually a heifer) weren’t just worn on the forehead as we do today, but covered the whole head and body. The repentant person wore the ashes to show the community that they had sinned but were sorry and asking for forgiveness.
Catholics continued the practice of wearing ashes as a sign of repentance. In early Church history, public penance was a thing for mortal sins. After receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, the penitent man would have ashes sprinkled on his head. Sometimes they would wear hairshirts (akin to sack-clothes) that were blessed by a bishop on Ash Wednesday, doing penances for 40 days, not returning to the church until Maundy Thursday.
Priests would also bless the dying. When a person was about to die, they would be laid on a sack cloth and sprinkled with ashes. According to CatholicCulture.org
“The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?” To which the dying person replied, “I am content.” In all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality and penance is clear.”
Part of the should sound familiar. I’ll get to it in a moment.
Our ashes, instead of coming from a heifer, come from another Lenten event: Palm Sunday. Specifically the Palm Sunday of the previous year. After taking our blessed palms home, sometimes folded into crosses, and displaying them, we bring them back to the church where they are burnt and stored for Ash Wednesday. At St. Edward’s if the weather permits, our CFF classes participate as a faith community.
The ashes are blessed and then distributed at Mass. During the distribution of ashes, the priest or lay ministers will make the Sign of the Cross with the ashes on the foreheads of the parishioners saying either “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
The first is from Genesis 3 which tells us of Original Sin and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The phrase comes from verse 19.
The second reminds us that we are all sinners needing to repent and need to come back to God and His laws for us that we hear of in the Gospel- the Good News!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “By the solemn 40 days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” It’s with this preparation season of Lent that we ready ourselves by repenting, praying, fasting to be ready to live our commission.
May we all turn back to God and listen to and live like His Word, Jesus.