It happens every year. People all throughout society do it. They act like nothing happened. Yet their face betrays them. A gray mark of ashes is smudged on their forehead, and they walk around as if it wasn’t there. And many wonder, “what is going on?”
No doubt, this Catholic practice confuses many people. But have you ever wondered why Catholics wear ashes?
On a day called Ash Wednesday, Catholics fast and (usually) attend Mass, receiving the sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead. As the priest traces the ashes across each forehead, he says the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The words serve as a reminder of what God spoke to Adam shortly after the Fall: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
Not exactly a pleasant reminder, right? Those were some of the less exciting words in the Bible. In fact, they were some of the first words in the whole of salvation history that spoke of man in a dismal tone. So why the sad reminder?
Well you see, Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent in the Catholic Church. Lent is a 40 day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that prepares people for Easter.1 But even more, Lent is a time for penance; a time to realize what is wrong with our lives and do something about it.
So ashes on the forehead is the kickoff to what many use as a time for an intense spiritual workout.
But some may read and be concerned. Afterall, doesn’t the Bible tell us not to show when we fast? In Jesus’ words: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:16-18).
Yikes. So much for Ash Wednesday, right? Isn’t that exactly what Catholics are doing when they mark their faces with ashes while they fast?
Well, not exactly. You see, it’s not that simple. Before we write off Ash Wednesday as a non-biblical celebration, we should be sure to understand why the Catholic Church celebrates it in the first place. So without further adieu, let’s check it out.
A Sign of Repentance
The practice of wearing ashes is not without foundation. It’s a practice that is all through the Old Testament, and it often is accompanied by an intense turn to God. For instance, after Job’s encounter with God, he says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). And similarly, we read in the book of Daniel, how Daniel did penance for the sake of his people. It says that Daniel sought God by ”prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan 9:3).
The examples could be multiplied, but suffice it to say that the wearing of ashes is a biblical practice that has its roots in the Old Testament. And it is a practice that even Jesus acknowledged. For instance, Jesus said of unrepentant cities that “if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt 11:21).
So the wearing of ashes is a practice that is associated with conversion to God. It marks a moment when man recognized his own mortality, humbling himself before God. It’s an outward sign of inward repentance.
A Nationwide Fast
Wearing ashes is often done alongside fasting (as in Daniel 9:3). Remember that on Ash Wednesday, Catholics wear ashes and fast throughout the day, and it is the kickoff to a season of fasting. It’s a fast that millions of people participate in across the land. This practice is reminiscent of the Prophet Joel’s words, which make up the first reading at the Ash Wednesday Mass. Joel prophecies to the people, “‘Yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:12-13).
Joel calls the people to return to God, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. But he adds an interesting detail: “rend your hearts and not your garments.” So from the very start of this call to repentance, you can see the warning: Don’t just look like you are turning toward God. Actually do it!
But the reading continues: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:15-16).
In this call to repentance, God wanted all of the people to fast together, as a nation. This wasn’t just a call to personal conversion (though that is certainly included). It was a call for the whole nation to turn back to God together.
This practice can even be seen in the Jewish celebration, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), instituted in Leviticus 16:29-30 as a day of fasting for the atonement of sins. It is a day of public fasting and abstinence, in which the people as a whole participate, and it is celebrated by Jews to this day.2
So even the idea of a public, communal fast is seen in the Old Testament. And that fast would be visible, so that the nation could participate together.
One may wonder, however, why Jesus bothered to warn us about making visible our fasting, if God mandated public fasts. Afterall, Jesus didn’t waste words.
Why the Concern?
Jesus’ warning about a public show of piety were not without warrant. Notice the way he phrases His warning: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men” (Matt 6:16). He is specifically calling out hypocrites who seek the admiration of others rather than God. Their motivation was all wrong.
Jesus wanted to make this clear to His listeners. True conversion to God is not accomplished by making a public spectacle of oneself. True conversion is in the rending of the heart, not the garment.
But it doesn’t follow that making any outward sign of piety is bad. Ask anyone who has ever worshipped or prayed in a group. The very act of participating in a communal act of worship is an outward sign of inward piety that can serve to unify a group.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It becomes bad when people seek the admiration of others rather than God. Catholic apologist Michelle Arnold says that, “Ash Wednesday is not about creating a show of one’s piety or drawing attention to one’s fasting. The wearing of ashes is a penance that Catholics around the world are invited to enter into as part of a community.”3
After all the talk of whether Matthew 6 renders Ash Wednesday unbiblical, some might be surprised to hear that it is the Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. The Church fully recognizes Jesus’ words concerning public displays of piety. While Ash Wednesday is celebrated as a day of communal fasting, the Church emphasizes that individuals go through the Lenten season performing personal and private acts of devotion to God. For more on fasting, check out my post, Why do Christians Fast?
When we see Matthew 6 in light of the rest of scripture, we see that it doesn’t contradict the observance of Ash Wednesday. In fact, we see the genius of calling all people to a day of communal fasting as a beginning to 40 days of personal fasting.
The cross of ashes on the forehead is not meant to be a way of publicizing our own personal piety. Rather, it is a reminder. Fr. Mike Schmitz said that if a Catholic is asked why he is wearing a cross of ashes, he should simply say that, “the ashes mean that I’m a sinner, but the cross means that I have a savior.”4
Notes and Sources
1. Technically, Lent is 46 days. But it contains 40 days of fasting.
2. To learn more about the Yom Kippur, check out the website, Judaism 101
3. Michelle Arnold, “Did Jesus Condemn Wearing Ashes on Ash Wednesday?” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001)
4. Excerpt taken from Fr. Mike Schmitz’s video, The Significance of Ash Wednesday
For a great explanation of the biblical roots of Lent and Ash Wednesday, check out Brant Pitre’s video, The Biblical Roots of Ash Wednesday https://catholicproductions.com/blogs/blog/the-biblical-roots-of-ash-wednesday