The History of the use of Ashes in the church

The History of using ASHES
on Ash Wednesday

With whom did the custom of using Ashes during mourning or repentance begin?
There is a tendency to associate the use of ashes as a symbol of repentance only with today’s Catholic church. But in fact, the use of ashes (along with sackcloth) to indicate mourning, deep repentance or humility — goes back over three thousand years and involved many cultures. As early as 800 BC, Homer wrote about it in The Iliad, and records show that it was practiced by Greeks, by Hebrews and by many other cultures of the western Mediterranean.

Ashes were regarded as a symbol of personal remorse and sadness. Often an uncomfortable "sackcloth" garment made of coarse black goat's hair, was worn as well.

There are many Old Testament references to the practice. Here are a few:

  • Job 42:6 "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Job (whose story was written between seventh and fifth centuries B.C.) repented in sackcloth and ashes while prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem.
  • Dan 9:3 (c. 550 B.C.) "And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes."
  • Jonah 3:5-6 In the fifth century B.C., after Jonah's preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, and the king covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes.
  • Esther 4:1 "When Mordecai perceived all that was done [the decree of King Xerxes, 485-464 B.C., of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire], Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry."

The very early Christian church encouraged the use of sackcloth and ashes for the same symbolic reasons. Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) wrote that the penitent must "live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes." Eusebius (260-340 AD), the famous early church historian, recounted in his "The History of the church" how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.

How did Lent, as a season of the church, begin?

Lent was first begun as a time of preparation for the joy of Easter. At first only catechumens and their sponsors fasted for a few days prior to Easter in final preparation for baptism. But over time the duration of preparation varied. For example in Rome, Easter was preceded by a full week of fasting and prayer. By the end of the fourth century the symbolism of a forty day penitential period, paralleling Christ’s forty days in the desert, captivated the imagination and a longer Lenten Season appeared. Forty days were chosen as a memorial of the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-4), which in turn recalled the forty years Israel wandered in the desert (Num 32:13).

The mathematics of Lent is slightly complicated!

Based on the above reasons, the selection of 40 days for Lent would seem rather straightforward. But life is not that simple! Because Sundays were observed as feasts of the resurrection, no fasting was permitted. Thus the pre-Easter Fast consisted of 40 days of Lent, minus the 6 Sundays excused from fasting, plus the 2 days of the paschal Fast (on good Friday and Holy Saturday) for a total of only thirty-six days. In order to bring the Lenten discipline more in accord with that which our Lord observed, an additional 4 days were added to the Lenten season in the sixth century. Thus Lent began on the Wednesday preceding the first Sunday of Lent and from henceforth Lent was — from start to finish — forty-four days long. Notice that this "starting" Wednesday is the one we now know as "Ash Wednesday."

The association of Ashes with the Lenten period of introspection and
repentance prior to Easter

Much later during the 6th or 7th centuries, Christian churches continued to think about how best to use the symbolism of ashes. During this period, Christians — in private — would at times sprinkle ashes on themselves as a sign of repentance. Ultimately this became a public practice, but instead of sprinkling ashes on the head, ashes were rubbed onto the forehead in the shape of a cross. Marking the forehead with a cross of ashes was a sign of repentance, and a reminder of the penitent's baptism. (One tradition is to use the ashes made from palm branches burned the year before on Palm Sunday.)

By the eighth century, those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, "Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." After the sprinkling, the priest asked, "Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the Day of Judgment?" To which the dying person replied, "I am content."

In the same eighth century, ashes were chosen as a mark of the beginning of Lent. The ritual for the "Day of Ashes" is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates to this period.

About 1000 AD, an Anglo-Saxon priest named Aelfric preached, "We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."

By the eleventh century the practice became firmly incorporated into the Roman Rite.

By the thirteenth century even the head of the Catholic church submitted to the discipline.

What Christian churches observe the tradition of Ashes?

Today the Catholic church has been joined by the Episcopal as well as the Lutheran church in observing application of ashes on "Ash Wednesday." In the Lutheran church, use of ashes is still considered optional, i.e., one may attend the worship service and choose not to come forward for the imposition of ashes.

As our Pastors say about the cross of ashes on our foreheads " . . . it echoes our baptismal anointing when we were buried with Christ. The ash is a chilling reminder of our mortality, but because our death is now in Christ, our endings are beginnings. The Lenten disciplines of acts of kindness, prayer, and fasting are tools of discipleship that can lead us to renewal as we bury all that is holding us back from being truly alive."

Despite what appears to be a heavy and even morbid day ("Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."), Ash Wednesday — the beginning of Lent — is an invitation to a journey of joy that will lead to the new life and the sure knowledge of the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter.

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