By FATHER JOHN KIERAN Commentary | Published February 6, 2020
Some activities in the church have high attendance, even during troubled times. Large crowds still come out on Ash Wednesday to receive the penitential anointing with ashes.
Some surprisingly question our custom saying that the practice is not mentioned in the New Testament. That is true. Indeed, Martin Luther and other “reformers” forbade the anointing with ashes for that reason. Thomas Cranmer, chancellor, and de facto head of the church in England, also banned the liturgical rite of imposing ashes in 1547.
So why do we anoint with ashes? Because it is an ancient penitential custom referenced several times in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament). The prophet Daniel says he pleaded for his people—“I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” (Dn 9:3)
Job, God’s faithful voice, offered himself in reparation for his people by repenting “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Jonah’s powerful message to the people of Nineveh caused them to repent. Even the King “left his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes.” (Jon 3:6)
Jesus also referenced the practice of vesting in ashes when he challenged the unrepentant people of Chorazin to do “sackcloth and ashes. (Lk 10:13)
The Ash Wednesday rite as we know it developed slowly in the Western Church. The monk Aelfric (10th Century) mentions the practice in his writings, “Let us strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent!”
By the time of Pope Urban II, anointing with ashes was a common practice. In the year 1091, the pope decreed that all receive ashes at the beginning of Lent.
Over the years the practice of daubing with ashes has been zealously practiced by some and rejected by others. In the early ‘90s a parishioner of St. Peter Church, LaGrange, and a city police officer, received ashes and went to work. To his annoyance, it was suggested he go home for the day and clean his face.
An overzealous Irish priest once ran out of real ashes but continued anointing using a magic marker. The next day he got a lot of phone calls from distressed ladies who could not restore their blackened faces!
Most liturgical churches now offer anointing with ashes in some form. The common formula used is based on Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and into dust you shall return.” Many prefer the more direct and prodding formula, “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”
Ashes, anointing, Lent are all for the one purpose, namely to deepen our union with Jesus, and strive more faithfully to follow his way. Since we are human and subject to failure, we must continually review the level of our faith living and make the necessary adjustments.
Publically receiving ashes is a wonderful way to begin Lent, both personally and in community with fellow parishioners. All should live the penitential spirit of Lent reflected in the prayers and Scripture readings assigned for the season. Choose some action or practice that is doable for yourself, and do it in love for our loving Creator and Savior Jesus Christ. Receiving the sacrament of reconciliation should be high on a Lenten to-do list.
We priests are blessed by being invited to local Lenten Penance Services, and to be ministers of sacramental forgiveness. Often people come who have been neglectful in their Catholic practice, or have not been to reconciliation for a lengthy time. We prayerfully welcome all comers and urge all to take advantage of visiting confessors to receive the sacramental grace of forgiveness.
Make it a great Lent for yourself.
Father John Kieran, senior priest, serves on the chaplaincy team at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur.