In one week we have an opportunity to attend Ash Wednesday Mass and get ashes at our local parish. This is one the most widely attended masses of the year-yet it is also one that many of us do not know a great deal about. Unlike Christmas or Easter where we are very familiar with the story, Ash Wednesday is surrounded by even more mystery. Therefore, I have collected some information on Ash Wednesday for your spiritual direction this year.
The History of Ashes
The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolize mourning, mortality, and penance. For instance, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 B.C.) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1).
Esther 4: 1-15
Mordecai Exhorts Esther.
1 When Mordecai learned all that was happening, he tore his garments, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city crying out loudly and bitterly, 2, till he came before the royal gate, which no one clothed in sackcloth, might enter. 3 Likewise in each of the provinces, wherever the king’s decree and law reached, the Jews went into deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament; most of them lay on sackcloth and ashes. 4 Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her. Overwhelmed with anguish, the queen sent garments for Mordecai to put on, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he refused. 5 Esther then summoned Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs whom he had placed at her service, and commanded him to find out what this action of Mordecai meant and the reason for it. 6 So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the public square in front of the royal gate, 7 and Mordecai recounted all that had happened to him, as well as the exact amount of silver Haman, had promised to pay to the royal treasury for the slaughter of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the written decree for their destruction that had been promulgated in Susa, to show and explain to Esther. Hathach was to instruct her to go to the king and to plead and intercede with him on behalf of her people. 9 Hathach returned to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther replied to Hathach and gave him this message for Mordecai: 11 “All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned is subject to the same law—death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter will such a person live. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.” 12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai,13 he had this reply brought to her: “Do not imagine that you are safe in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews. 14 Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source;* but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?” 15 Esther sent back to Mordecai the response: 16 “Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking night or day for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!” 17 Mordecai went away and did exactly as Esther had commanded.
Job (whose story was written between the 7th and 5th centuries B.C.) repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel (c. 550 B.C.) wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
In the 5th century B.C., after Jonah’s preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, and the king covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes (Jonah 3:5-6).
These Old Testament are wonderful examples of evidence of both a recognized practice of using ashes and a common understanding of their symbolism.
Jesus, Himself also made reference to ashes: Referring to towns that refused to repent of sin although they had witnessed the miracles and heard the gospel, our Lord said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Matthew 11:21).
The early Church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. In his book, De Poenitentia, Tertullian (c. 160-220) prescribed that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his The History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.
At the Battle of Ninevah, 627, Emperor Heraclius won. Chosroes' son, Kavadh I, executed all his father and his brothers and claimed himself king of Persia.
He made peace with Emperor Heraclius, where he returned to them all their lost territories, but also gave him the True Cross and the other relics that had been stolen from Jerusalem.
Heraclius then brought back the True Cross to Jerusalem to be placed in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher built over Calvary where Jesus was crucified. He wanted to carry the cross into Jerusalem but was unable to do so. St. Helen venerating The True Cross
The Patriarch of Jerusalem told him; ‘How can an Emperor carry the cross into Jerusalem dressed in fine clothes when Jesus carried in poverty. So the Emperor took off his fine clothes, put on sackcloth and barefoot, and was then able to carry the cross into the Basilica.
In the Middle Ages (at least by the time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of a sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. 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.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is first mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary which probably dates at least from the 8th century CE. One of the earliest descriptions is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric who lived from 955 to 1020 CE. In his Lives of the Saints, he wrote, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” (Aelfric then proceeded to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was “accidentally” killed several days later in a boar hunt!) This quotation confirms what we know from other sources—that throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head rather than being anointed on the forehead as in our day.
As Aelfric suggested, the pouring of ashes on one’s body and dressing in sackcloth (a very rough and uncomfortable material) were outer manifestations of inner repentance or mourning which reflect a very ancient practice. It is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Probably the best-known reference is found at the very end of the Book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in II Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1,3; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Ezekiel 27:30; and Daniel 9:3. In the New Testament Jesus refers to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to your, Bethsaida! If miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
The History of Lent
Today, Ash Wednesday services are some of the most attended services of the year for many parishes. Has it always been that way? The facts appear to bring a much different truth to light. While fasting before Easter seems to have been ancient and widespread, the length of that fast varied significantly from place to place and across generations. In the latter half of the second century, for instance, Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul) and Tertullian (in North Africa) tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, or forty hours—commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of Christ’s time in the tomb. By the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria speaks of a fast of up to six days practiced by the devout in his see; and the Byzantine historian Socrates relates that the Christians of Rome at some point kept a fast of three weeks. Only following the Council of Nicea in 325
A.D. did the length of Lent become fixed at forty days, and then only nominally.
Accordingly, it was assumed that the forty-day Lent that we encounter almost everywhere by the mid-fourth century must have been the result of a gradual lengthening of the pre-Easter fast by adding days and weeks to the original one- or two-day observance.3 This lengthening, in turn, was thought necessary to make up for the waning zeal of the post-apostolic church and to provide a longer period of instruction for the increasing numbers of former pagans thronging to the font for Easter baptism. Such remained the standard theory for most of the twentieth century.
Now, the days may have been numbered but the actual rules of the fast were about as varied as the people who were in the Church. The only thing they could agree on was the concept of the preparation of the people for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday.