Let us try to understand the meaning of Ash Wednesday and the ash cross, which the Roman Catholics and some other Christians celebrate.
‘You came from ashes and you return to ashes’
Ash Wednesday is as said a Catholic holiday, which is sometimes also celebrated by other Christians these days. But …
▪︎ What is the meaning of all the symbolism on this holiday?
▪︎ Where does it come from?
▪︎ And is it something for you to participate?
Ash Wednesday grew out of the practice of public penance.
Those who had committed a grave sin reported themselves to the bishop and at the beginning of Lent they were put on a sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes.
In a ritual, the penitents were banished from the celebrating community until Maundy Thursday.
Towards the end of the first millennium, more and more believers, aware of their own sinfulness, began to dust themselves with ashes. When the practice of public penance was lost, the practice of laying ashes became common to all believers.
This carefully followed Pope Urban II’s recommendation in 1091.
Unlike the penitents, the faithful were not expelled from the faith community. They were, however, separated from the priestly choir by means of a hunger cloth.
Initially the ashes were sprinkled on the head of the men and a cross was drawn on the forehead of the women. In the twelfth century, it was prescribed from Rome that the ashes should come from the burnt sacred palm branches of the previous year.
Today the blessing and the imposition of the ashes happens after the gospel and the homily. The prayer of blessing refers to the purpose of Lent: “That they may with a pure heart celebrate the resurrection of God’s Son.”
Then the priest consecrates the ashes and sprinkles the words of the faithful
▪︎ “Remember, man, that you are of dust and return to the dust of the earth” (Genesis 3:19)
▪︎ or “Repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
The two readings (Joel 2:12-18 and 2 Corinthians 5:20-6: 2) are a call to repentance and reconciliation and the gospel (Matthew 6: 1-6: 16-18) warns against almsgiving , not to make the prayer and fasting stand out.
Ash Wednesday falls exactly 46 days before Easter. The period in between is called the Lent. Easter always falls on a Sunday, which is calculated by the position of the moon. So that shifts every year, and therefore the date on which Ash Wednesday is celebrated also shifts.
Why an ash cross?
Ash Wednesday falls immediately after Carnival. It is, as it were, the “hangover” after that happy eating, drinking and dressing up party.
Ash Wednesday is all about penance.
You regret your mistakes and declare that you are a limited person. Hence the ash: after all, all people are dust.
Normally there are often church services on Ash Wednesday. The believers then sing songs, listen to a sermon and pray. Finally they form a long line and the priest or pastor gives each of them an “ash cross”: he wipes a cross on their foreheads with ashes.
Because of corona, many churches took a different approach this year. Parishes in Utrecht, for example, scatter loose ashes over the believer’s head instead of marking a cross. In Africa and southern European countries they already did this before the corona crisis.
Can I also get an ash cross?
Yes, if a church is open you can always just walk in. You don’t have to be a regular churchgoer or member of that church to participate.
But it is of course useful to check online whether a church is open, and what the conditions are. So just google the name of the church building you want to go to.
Almost every church has its own website: you can find there within a few clicks when the services are. Look in the menu under terms such as “services”, “meetings” or “celebrations”.
What does that ash cross mean?
What is the symbolism of Ash Wednesday?
The ash cross has a rich and complex symbolism.
Broadly speaking, you say something like: “My life is limited, I make mistakes, but I belong to Jesus and I want to do it differently.” In other words: “I am ashes and Jesus became ashes for me.”
Ash was seen in the past as an expression of sadness, transience, penance, conversion and renewal.
It stands for death: how your life evaporates as dust.
The priest or pastor also often says to each individual personally the Bible text: “You have come from ashes and you have returned to ashes.”
In the Bible you see that people who mourn and do penance smear ashes on themselves as a public signal, a bit like we wear black clothes today at such times.
And there is a third meaning: some ashes can also act as soap, with which you can wipe dirt from your body – and then of course you have to knock or rinse the ashes off you again.
Ash symbolizes human finiteness and mortality. So on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we only have a limited time on Earth.
▪︎ On the one hand, that realization can make us sad and despondent.
▪︎ On the other hand, it can also encourage us to spend the precious time we have as meaningfully as possible, both in relation to God and in relation to others, and nature.
In line with this, as also points out that we are not perfect.
We are not only ‘limited’ in our lifespan (quantity), but also ‘quality’ interaction in our relationship with God, ourselves, others, or nature sometimes leaves much to be desired.
With the ash cross we therefore express the realization that we have errors and shortcomings (large or small) and that we want to work with them during the coming Lent.
In addition, ash has a cleansing power.
In primitive cultures, ash was even used for washing. This symbolism thus reveals that the fast can be seen as a period of ‘cleansing’.
For this last meaning, which is hidden behind the ‘ashes’ of the ash cross, we refer to an age-old practice of burning down wasteland in order to make the soil very fertile again.
Fertility or new life that follows from this is therefore wished for us when imposing the ash cross.
In other words: it is not our shortcomings that are highlighted, but rather the new opportunities that we get.
That is of course the “logo” of Christians and refers to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Because the cross is drawn with ashes, it means something like: Jesus became part of this limited life, his life also seemed to evaporate like ashes, but at the same time it ‘cleans’ it in a wonderful way, like ashes were seen as a kind of soap: The core of the Christian belief is that the crucifixion has a positive meaning.
The ash, which in itself has a very deep symbolic meaning, has been applied in the form of a cross since the twelfth century.
This cross represents the core of the Christian faith: not death has the last word, but good, the resurrection, the life!
For 40 days, Christians want to focus on that hopeful message, with the intention, of course, that this ‘practice time’ continues to bear fruit long afterwards.
For this they are inspired by the example of Jesus.
With this cross, Christians indicate that they want to ‘think, speak and do’ like Jesus.
If there is something written on your forehead, it says something like: look, this is me, this completely typifies me. If you have an ash cross drawn on your forehead, you say something like: look, world, that’s me. I am ashes. And Jesus also became ashes.
The ashes for the cross is made from the branches that were used at Palm Sunday a year earlier. Christians celebrate the Palm Sunday on the Sunday before Easter. They commemorate how Jesus once rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the residents then waved palm branches to celebrate. In those church services, palm branches are sometimes also waved.
These are saved and burned later. The crosses of those ashes are drawn on Ash Wednesday. So it means something like: even when we applaud and praise Jesus, there is something temporary about it, and it typifies us.
An ash cross symbolizes: “You have come from ashes and you have returned to ashes.”
Do you also have to walk outside with that ash cross?
Many believers nowadays remove it before going outside, because most Dutch people no longer understand the meaning. Many people will not see it, because most church services on Ash Wednesday are in the evening and by that time it is already dark at this time of the year.
You can leave the ash cross in place and wipe it off at home. It can be a nice reminder for yourself when you look in the mirror.