Wednesday, February 22, 2012


The Imposition of Ashes is an Ancient Tradition

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

Our Lenten-Easter series continues. Today, as many of you know, is Ash Wednesday, a day when many people have ashes placed on their forehead in the shape of a cross while the one administering them says the words from Genesis 3:19 “Remember man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  

One the beliefs that Christians took with them from Judaism is the idea that everyday things can be sanctified when their use is dedicated to God. The most obvious example would be the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But water is sanctified through Baptism and oil through the sacrament of Anointing. Like other pious devotions, the imposition of ashes is what might be called a sacramental. That is, a practice which affirms a person’s beliefs and, in so doing, deepens their faith. Early Christians believed these practices to be a source of grace and many continue those traditions today. 

The earliest references of Ash Wednesday date to the Fourth Century and refer to it as dies cinerum, day of ashes. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom approached the altar where the priest dipped his thumb into blessed ashes and made the sign of the cross on their forehead. The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.

A Soldier Receives Ashes

The custom of distributing ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. In Biblical times men who repented of their sins covered themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. By participation in this ceremony a believer was symbolically making a public confession of their own sinfulness and asking for forgiveness. The person is also forcefully reminded of their own mortality and, with it, impending judgment.  

In the Early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned, and wished to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. It must have been a powerful reminder for those leaving the Church to see the penitent wearing the same ashes they wore on their foreheads. 

In its earliest form Lent was the final preparatory stage before Baptism, which took place on Holy Saturday night…after sundown and therefore on Easter Sunday under the Jewish system of calculating days. Ashes as a symbol of repentance appear throughout the Old Testament. Jesus mentions ashes in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13, “Woe to you, Chora'zin! woe to you, Bethsa'ida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” The use and meaning here was to provide an outward or ritual expression for the repentance of sin just as is done today on Ash Wednesday.   

This thought carried over into the Early Church. The theologian, Tertullian, described the use of sackcloth and ashes in the penance of an adulterer.  And later Church Fathers Eusebius, Cyprian, and Jerome also associated ashes with public repentance.  The last of the early fathers, Isidore of Seville (560-636), described the practice of his day with these words, “It is good, therefore, that a penitent deplore his sin in sackcloth and ashes, for in sackcloth is harshness and the prick of sin; and the ashes, moreover, display the dust of death.”
A Workmen Prays after Receiving Ashes

 Many Protestant churches also offer a ritual imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Interestingly, the Eastern, or Orthodox, Church still uses the Julian calendar to calculate the date for Easter.  This necessitates a change in their penitential season, The Great Lent, as well. Consequently, they celebrate Ash Monday rather than Ash Wednesday. 

Next time we will examine the ancient practice of fasting. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings 

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Sheila Hollinghead said...

Hey Edward,

I always find your blog posts so interesting!

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