Ashes have at all times symbolized humiliation and mourning. The Royal Prophet David declared unto God that, in the affliction of his heart, he “did eat bread like ashes” (Ps. ci. 10), and when this good king had been gathered to his fathers, his penitential deed was imitated in part by the Gentile monarch of Nineve, who “rose up out of his throne,” on the preaching of Jonas, “and castaway his robe from him and was clothed in sackcloth and sat in ashes” (Jonas iii. 6.) The Eastern custom of sprinkling dust, or ashes, on the head, of sitting in ashes or casting them up into the air, is, to this day, a manifestation of true or feigned grief of heart.
The Saints knew well the holy significancy of ashes; they knew that they are memorials of the origin of man’s body and its destiny, of Christian lowliness of heart, and hence we read in their lives that they wished to die on a bed of ashes. Their souls, released from their mortal prisons, rose triumphantly to heaven from the ashes of humility, of which the material ashes are the types, bright and glorious, like the fabled Phœnix of olden story.
“In the midst of the large infirmary of the Abbey of Cluny,” says De Moleon, in his Liturgical Travels, “there is a hollow place six feet long and about two and a half or three feet wide, in which religious in their last agony were laid, after it had previously been covered with ashes. The present custom, however, is not to put them in it until after death. Some communities of Carthusians and Trappists make their dying brethren pass through the same solemn ceremony.” What cruelty! say the votaries of the world—what true charity! say the children of God. These good monks thought more of their souls than of their bodies; ashes are one of the medicines of the soul, curing it of the vain-glory that the retrospect of a well spent life may occasion, and therefore the monks loved to use them.
The present rite of the Church of signing the foreheads of her children with blessed ashes, in the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a remnant of the ancient penitential discipline. In the good old times, when the faithful were more fervent, when they understood better the malice of sin and had a deeper horror of it, public penance for certain crimes was ordained by the Church, and, for the most part, willingly accepted and faithfully performed. The sorrowing sinner looked upon admission to the penitential course as a precious boon, as a hope held out of his reinstatement in the enjoyment of those spiritual goods which he had forfeited by his transgression.
The course of penance for those who were to be reconciled on Holy Thursday began on Ash-Wednesday. The penitents, having confessed their sins, came to the Church on that day with bare feet and in habits of mourning, and humbly begged from the Bishop canonical punishment. The Pontiff clothed them in sackcloth, scattered ashes on their heads, sprinkled them with holy water and recited the Seven Penitential Psalms over them, whilst the attendant clergy lay prostrate on the ground. The Bishop and his ministers then imposed hands on them to ratify, as it were, their solemn consecration to the course of penance. This ceremony was followed by a pathetic exhortation in which the Bishop announced to the weeping sinners before him that as God had driven Adam from Paradise, so was he obliged to exclude them for a time from the spiritual paradise of the Church. With sorrowing hearts and countenances the penitents marched in slow procession to the door of the Church. The Bishop thrust them out with his pastoral staff, and they passed not again the threshold of the house of God until Holy Thursday. During this touching ceremony the clergy chanted the words which God addressed to fallen man when driving him from the earthly paradise: “Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow: remember that thou art dust and into dust thou shalt return.”
There existed in some dioceses, even as late as the last century, vestiges of the old custom. At Narbonne, public penitents abstained, during all Lent from entering the Church; they recited prayers in their own houses during the celebration of Mass. In the collegiate church of Avalon, in the diocese of Autun, it was customary to distribute the ashes on the steps of the main entrance, in memory of the exclusion of the penitents from the Church. At Autun, a clergyman in cassock and surplice was the substitute for all the penitents; he was driven from the church on Ash-Wednesday and again admitted on Holy Thursday. In course of time many of the faithful, through a motive of humility, though not obliged to a course of public penance, presented themselves on the first day of Lent to receive the ashes. This pious custom had spread in the eleventh century throughout the church, as appears from a decree of the Council of Benevento in 1091.
The mildness of the Church in our regard, in contrast with her holy severity towards those of our forefathers in the faith, who unhappily sinned, yet perhaps far less grievously and less frequently than we, ought to fill us with sentiments of deep humility and gratitude. The sign of the holy ashes on our heads should remind us of the destiny of our earthly bodies—dust and worms. If we realize well this solemn truth, we shall undertake readily and joyously our Lenten work of fasting and praying, hoping for a recompense beyond the grave when corruption will be changed into incorruption, when this mortal body will be clothed with immortality.
The congregation of Rites, [The congregation of Rites is composed of Cardinals and inferior officials; its object is the regulation of the ceremonies of divine worship. It was established by Pope Sixtus V. in 1587.] by a decree of the 23d of May 1693, has forbidden the ashes that are to be placed on the heads of the faithful to be moistened with water; they must be perfectly dry. The rubric of the Roman Missal prescribes that the ashes are to be got by burning the palm-branches blessed on Palm Sunday of the preceding year. In this we discover a holy symbolism. The palm is the emblem of triumph, ashes of humility and death to show that the term of earthly triumph is the tomb, of far-extending sway of earthly potentate, the coffin and the grave. But the blessed palm is an emblem of Christ’s triumph, and its ashes are, as it were, its seeds, to teach us that we too shall participate in our Lord’s triumph if we participate in His sufferings and His death by a true, solid devotion to His cross and by dying to ourselves.