“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” – Joel 2:12-13
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent as Catholics have ashes placed on our foreheads for two reasons: as an act of remembrance and a sign to others of our faithfulness.
Creighton University’s Praying Lent website calls the placing of ashes “one of the most counter-cultural acts of our faith.”
When the ashes are placed on our foreheads, the minister says one of two things:
“Remember, man/woman, you are dust and to dust you will return,” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
The ashes come from the burnt palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, bringing us back to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
“On this first day of Lent, we begin a journey of renewal – from death to life,” the university site notes. “This is a joyful season. We will make sacrifices, in order to try to let God reform our desiring, but this is a time for God to be generous to us.”
The ashes remind us of our own death. They also remind us that as mortal creatures we must turn away from sin and accept God’s mercy with the promise of everlasting life. Fr. Andy Alexander, S.J., writing on the Creighton website, notes that because the ashes are easily wiped from our foreheads, our challenge is to remember why they were there and what they mean.
“We are reminded that our call is to turn away from sin and to believe the Good News of our salvation in Jesus,” he writes. “This is a joyful reminder. It challenges us, for sure, but reminds us of why we want to turn from sin.”
Rather than a sign that says, ‘Look how holy I am,’ Fr. Alexander notes, the ashes are a sign to the world that we are reminded of where we come from and where we are going – and that we have turned away from our lives of sin to live the lives Jesus calls us to.
His essay underscores that in today’s world, we deny death as we attempt to stave off old age and try hard to look young.
“The reality of being mortal is not to surrender hope or vitality,” he writes. “Quite the opposite. To realize that we are limited and fragile, can lead to a humility that opens our hearts to being truly dependent on God, and more profoundly open to the reality of our redemption.”
Indeed, through Jesus’s death and resurrection, we are saved from the power of sin and the power of death, he notes, opening us to new hope and vitality.
“That’s why it is so important to remember the ashes all throughout Lent,” Fr. Alexander sums up. “This remembering opens us to the graces of Lent for us. I am a creature in need of God for life itself – the gift that gave me life, the gift that sustains me each day, and the gift of eternal life. The worse than can happen to me is that I will fall into the hands of a loving God.”