Personally, I’m kind of tired of the same boring Ash Wednesday articles that nearly every catholic periodical publishes every year. You know, the passively written ones that don’t really give you any information that one does not already know usually written by a well-intentioned deacon.
So here is a quick rundown to try to help someone get a better understanding of Ash Wednesday:
Origin of the use of ashes:
To look at scripture it appears that the use of ashes in a variety of ways was already well established at the penning of the texts that mention the use of ashes. That is, the reader or hearer of the text already knows what is meant by the different uses and mentions of ashes. The use of ashes can be found outside the Judeao-Christian faiths. Homor mentions Odysseus sitting in ashes in the Illiad. Also, the ancient Persians had a custom of punishment where the condemned was stifled and executed in a pile of ashes until the condemned was dead. However, the origin of the different meanings of the use of ashes seems to be lost in history.
Luckily, how something is used often helps in discovering the meaning(s) of what is being used. In this case Ashes. The use of ashes in scripture are many. Here are a few uses. It is best to read the context for the full meaning of the quote.
To expresses human frailty/insignificance:
Genesis 18:27 – “Abraham answered, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
To Express Humiliation and Repentence:
Ester 4:1 – “When Mor'decai learned all that had been done, Mor'decai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;”
Johna 3:6 – “1. Then tidings reached the king of Nin'eveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
Job 42: -- “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
Ashes used as a Mode of Purification: (This one might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense. What remains after a fire is finished has been cleansed by fire and is some of the cleanest matter on earth. Likewise, there are backbackers who still use ashes and the cold coals from their fires as an abrasive to brush their teeth because the ashes are clean.)
Numbers 19:9 -- “And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the people of Israel for the water for impurity, for the removal of sin.”
Numbers 19:17 – “For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and running water shall be added in a vessel”
(The ashes of the Red Heifer were to be placed outside of town as a perpetual statute of the removal of sins for both the Jews and travelers.)
Hebrews 8:13 – “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh”
A sign of mourning
Job 2:8 – “And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”
Remember scripture as well as sacraments and sacramentals have a multilayered meaning. That is to say, scripture, sacraments, and sacramentals have multiple simultaneous meanings. So it is very likely that the ashes for ashes from Ash Wednesday contain all the aboving meanings and expressions: though only one might be emphasized.
Other things the Jews used ashes for that we never hear about but I am certain have some kind of theological implication are listed below. Sadly, I don’t have the time to figure out what the theological implications are at the moments as I am writing this post very quickly.
- On High festivals the ashes of the burnt offerings were allowed to remain as an ornament (Mishna, Tamid, 2:2)
- The Altar of the burnt offering was never to be completely cleaned of all the ashes. Some of the ashes were meant to remain. (probably as some kind of sign for something).
- Ashes from the incense were used to clean the candlestick (I’m assuimg this means the menorah.) (Mishna, Talmid3:9; 5:1; 1:4).
- The Ark was covered in ashes and ashes were sprinkled on the heads of persons on days of fasting. (Taamith 2,1)
- After the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, the bride and bridegroom had ashes sprinkled upon them as a sign of mourning for the loss of Jerusalem and the temple during the height of their happiness.
- In memory of the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple the Jews also ate bread sprinkled with Ashes at the last meal before the fast-day of the Ninth of Ab (Yer. Ta'an. iv. 69c; Lam. R. to iii. 16; ShulḦan 'Aruk, OraḦ Ḥayyim, 552, 6 gloss). This one is especially interesting as scripture mentions in a number of places the consuming of ashes as food as to imply that they are eating the bread of humiliation and drink of affliction.