“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
These familiar words are spoken every year on Ash Wednesday just before we are marked with ashes as a sign of our mortality and sincere desire to do penance.
Ashes have a long and rich history in biblical tradition. In the Old Testament, ashes were paired with sackcloth as a symbol of repentance. If someone wanted to show their repentant heart, they would wear sackcloth, sit in ashes and put ashes on the top of their head. Sackcloth, a coarse, burlap-like material, usually made of black goat’s hair, made wearing it extremely uncomfortable, while ashes signified desolation and sadness. Quite simply, sackcloth and ashes were used as an outward sign of one’s inward condition, making one’s change of heart visible for all, and demonstrating their sincerity of one’s grief for their sins.
Today we may not be wearing sackcloth, but each year on Ash Wednesday, we come to church to have ashes put on our foreheads, marking our beginning of the holy and blessed season of Lent, our 40-day fast (not counting Sundays) before Easter.
The “Day of Ashes,” or “Dies Cinerum” in the Roman Missal, is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary of the sixth century. By the eighth century, there are records of the pope and a small congregation processing through the streets of Rome to the church of St. Sabina on the Aventine, where they celebrated the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – the same place the pope still celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass today. During the procession, the people sang, “Let us put on sackcloth and ashes.”
North of the Alps, however, merely singing the short chant gradually developed into the Rite of Imposing Ashes by sprinkling them on the heads of the faithful. By 1091, the Council of Benevento decreed this practice universal, and everyone – clergy and laity, women and men – should receive ashes on their heads as a sign of humility and repentance. Eventually, the practice made its way to Rome and records indicate that by the 13th century, the pope himself also received ashes on the top of his head.
The custom with which we are familiar here in the United States – receiving a cross-shaped mark on our forehead – rose out of a devotion to imitate the spiritual mark that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and made a slave of righteousness in Christ. (Romans 6:3-18) Therefore, the imposition of ashes on the forehead, as we know it, is full of the symbolism of repentance and conversion.
This short history brings us to today.
Without a doubt, we have all had a year filled with different ways of living and praying. There are fewer in church, no water in the font, less congregational singing, and the sign of peace expressed with no contact between individuals. Yet we still pray.
This year, instead of receiving ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead, which is unsafe in this time of pandemic, we can still receive them by sprinkling on top of the head – a return to a centuries-old way of receiving ashes. We will look a little cleaner, yet we still repent and believe in the Gospel. We will still wear our ashes home to begin our Lenten practices.
This change has been directed to us from the Holy See and affirmed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It recalls the biblical method of putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penance, and in Rome and some European monasteries, is the normal way of distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday. This method can be done safely as long as both the minister and the recipient are wearing masks. The recipient simply kneels, or makes a profound bow, before the minister who sprinkles the ashes without saying anything. While marking the forehead is our custom, placing ashes on top of the head is within our ritual rules as the Roman Missal only says that the minister “places ashes” (imponit cineres) and does not specify how.
This will be a different experience this year, yet one thing remains the same: we are still called to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”