THE BIBLICAL ORIGIN OF USING ASHES AS SIGN OF PENITENCE
By Rev. Fr. Abe P. Arganiosa, CRS
1. Ash is a reminder of our nothingness before God and our being a mere creature. It is also a reminder of our sinfulness.
Genesis 3:19 “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for DUST thou art, and unto DUST shalt thou return.”
Strong Biblical Dictionary: H6083
עפר ‛âphâr aw-fawr’ From H6080; dust (as powdered or gray); hence clay, earth, mud: – ashes, dust, earth, ground, morter, powder, rubbish.
The expressions ‘DUST’ [Aphar] and ‘ASHES’ [Epher] are play of words and signify the origin of the human body from the ordinary chemical elements [cf. “Ashes” in J.D. Douglas & Merrill C. Tenny, NIV Compact Dictionary, p. 54]
Genesis 18:27 “And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but DUST and ASHES”
Job 30:19 “He hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like DUST and ASHES.”
By putting ash on our body we are reminding ourselves of our nothingness before God and that unless we are faithful in Christ our bodies shall be corrupted by sin. On the other hand if we remain in union with Christ He will glorify our mortal bodies:
Philippians 3:20-21 [ESV] “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
2. Ash is one of the instruments of God used against the Enemy to show His love of His People and His Almighty Power.
Exodus 9:8 “And the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ASHES of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh.”
The ashes became boils that tortured the enemies of God [cf. Exodus 9:10]. The ultimate enemy of God is Satan. And once again Ashes is being used by the People of God to show him the Almighty Power of the Redeemer.
3. Ashes are part of the things kept in the Sanctuary and Altar of God.
Exodus 27:1-3 “And thou shalt make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height thereof shall be three cubits. And thou shalt make the horns of it upon the four corners thereof: his horns shall be of the same: and thou shalt overlay it with brass. And thou shalt make his pans to receive his ASHES, and his shovels, and his basons, and his fleshhooks, and his firepans: all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.”
Leviticus 1:16 “And he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of THE ASHES:”
Leviticus 4:12 “Even the whole bullock shall he carry forth without the camp unto a clean place, where THE ASHES are poured out, and burn him on the wood with fire: where the ashes are poured out shall he be burnt.”
Leviticus 6:10-11 “And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh, and take up THE ASHES which the fire hath consumed with the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth THE ASHES without the camp unto a clean place.”
4. The use of ashes is part of the Ministerial Priesthood serving before the Altar of God.
Numbers 4:12-14 “And they shall take all the instruments of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of badgers’ skins, and shall put them on a bar: And they shall take away the ASHES from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon: And they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith they minister about it, even the censers, the fleshhooks, and the shovels, and the basons, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread upon it a covering of badgers’ skins, and put to the staves of it.”
So, our Priests who ministers in the Temple of God and in our Houses of Worships are doing the same. They use Ashes and when they are doing it they are wearing PURPLE cloth that covers the container of the Ashes and the same for their liturgical vestments.
5. From the Old Testament the Ashes from the Altar of God are used for Purification.
Numbers 19:9-10 “And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. And he that gathereth the ASHES of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.”
Numbers 19:17 “And for an unclean person they shall take of the ASHES of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave:”
In Catholic practice the Ashes is blessed wtih Holy Water so that it will become a genuine sign of Purification and Reconciliation with God. The statute is forever. The Catholic Church is the one continuing this Divine Decree.
6. Joshua, the successor of Moses, put dust on his head and knelt before the Ark of the Covenant.
Joshua 7:6 “And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put DUST upon their HEADS.”
Here Joshua admits Israel’s nothingness before God and their weakness in front of a powerful enemy. Here Joshua manifested his reliance on the Omnipotent Power of God. Catholics confronted by the Devil puts ashes to call on the same God to same us from a powerful enemy.
7. Putting on Ashes is a sign of shame and protest against the evil done in one’s body.
2 Samuel 13:19 “And Tamar put ASHES ON HER HEAD, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying.”
Tamar was raped by his half-brother Amnon. As a manifestation of her shame, anger, pain and protest for the evil done she put on Ashes. Catholics are doing the same. We put on ashes because we are ashamed and in pain for our sinfulness and at the same time we are angry at Satan for tempting us and leading us to sin.
8. Pouring of Ashes is a manifestation of God’s anger against the Sin of His servants.
1 Kings 13:3 “And he gave a sign the same day, saying, This is the sign which the LORD hath spoken; Behold, the altar shall be rent, and the ASHES that are upon it shall be poured out.” [cf. 1 Kings 13:5]
The Catholic Priests uses ashes to remind the People that their sins are abominations to the Lord and unless they repent their sins shall be punished.
9. Putting ashes on the body is a sign of deep sorrow for the danger that will befall the People of God.
Esther 4:1-3 “When Mordecai perceived all that was done, 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; And came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ASHES.”
(14:1) Queen Esther also, being in fear of death, resorted unto the Lord:
(14:2) And laid away her glorious apparel, and put on the garments of anguish and mourning: and instead of precious ointments, she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she humbled her body greatly, and all the places of her joy she filled with her torn hair.
The Catholics seeing the danger of spiritual death brought about by Sins are putting on Ashes to manifest their sorrows and their collective supplication for the Mercy of God.
10. The People of Israel put on Dust or Ashes on their Heads as a Sign of Grief as well as Repentance for their Sins and the sins of their ancestors.
Nehemiah 9:1 “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month the people of Israel gathered to fast in order to show sorrow for their sins. They had already separated themselves from all foreigners. They wore sackcloth and put DUST ON THEIR HEADS as signs of grief. Then they stood and began to confess the sins that they and their ancestors had committed.”
11. Job the Just used Ash as a sign of Repentance.
Job 42:6 “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Catholics are following the example of this holy and blessed man, Job. We practice self-denial yearly and at the same time manifest it with ashes.
12. The Prophet Daniel used Ash to pray for the Sins of his People.
Daniel 9:3 “And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ASHES”
13. The people of Nineveh repented by Fasting, Sackloth and Ashes for which they gained God’s Forgiveness.
Jonah 3:5-6 “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ASHES.”
Jonah 3:10 “And God saw their WORKS, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”
See, God saw their works and they were spared. They were forgiven. One of those works is putting on Ashes. God accepted the use of Ashes but the Anti-Catholics hate it. It means that their stand on the matter is not from God.
14. The use of Ashes and Fasting is prophesied by the Lord through Prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 58:5 “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ASHES under him? wilt thou call this a FAST, and an acceptable day to the LORD?”
Fasting and Ashes characterizes the acceptable day to the Lord. That day of the Lord is his Passion, Death and Resurrection wherein He gave us Redemption. Thus, in remembrance of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection we fast and put on ashes.
15. The Prophet Jeremiah prophesied that the Daughter Zion which is the prefigure of the Church will use Ashes in mourning for “The Only Son” who is the Lord Jesus.
Jeremiah 6:26 “O daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ASHES: make thee mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation: for the spoiler shall suddenly come upon us.”
The Lord Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of the Father. He is the Only Son who died for our Salvation for which the People of God mourns. And we remember His Passion and Death with Ashes and Fasting as the Lord says through Jeremiah the prophet.
16. The Prophet Ezekiel & Malachi used the imagery of Ashes in reminding people of their destruction for their sins against the Lord and His Sanctuary.
Ezekiel 28:18 “Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ASHES upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.”
Malachi 4:3 “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ASHES under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts.”
17. St. Peter also reminds the believers that the evil people were turned to Ashes thus they have to avoid the wickedness they have committed.
2 Peter 2:6 “And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ASHES condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly”
18. The Lord Jesus recognizes the positive effects of the use of Ashes as a sign and means of Repentance.
Matthew 11:21 “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” [cf. Luke 10:13]
19. The Letter to the Hebrews recognizes the significance of Ashes for Sanctification.
Hebrews 9:13 “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and THE ASHES of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
That is why the Lenten Ashes is usually being given inside the Holy Mass wherein the Body and Blood of Christ is being offered in the Eucharistic Sacrifice so that the full Sanctification of the Faithful be realized. The Ashes is a sign of Repentance but the one that truly cleanses the sins is the Body and Blood of Christ.
Ashes, as a Jewish sign of penitence, were accepted by Christians and are used now primarily as a Sacramental on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Derived from burning the palms from the previous year, the ashes are blessed and imposed on the faithful [forehead in America & Philippines while in Europe poured on the head] during the ceremony after the Homily of the Mass. Outside the Mass they are blessed and imposed during the Liturgy of the Word.
This outward popular symbol of private or public Sorrow, Sadness or Penance is a proof of humility, the result of human frailty, a remembrance of our Mortality, that we are made of dust and will return to dust. However, a second formula also allows another concept more in keeping with the Lenten period, namely, Penance, Contrition, and The Striving after Perfection. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
In the early Christian era ashes were imposed on public penitents, sprinkled on their penitential clothes.
On Ash Wednesday, the opening day of Lent, in keeping with its penitential spirit, Catholics observe a day of fasting and abstinence.
Ashes are used in two different ways in the consecration of a church. They are sprinkled on the floor in the form of a cross and mixed with the Gregorian water sprinkled on the altar and in the church during the ceremony. [cf. Dictionary of the Liturgy]
SEARCHED BY: NICHOLAI M. LUCENOS= DEC 28, 2011