All of us like to look good. Clean, neat, in-style, and with enough social savvy to wear just the right outfit for each occasion that pops up into our lives. The flourishing cosmetic industry knows and profits from this. Billions and billions of dollars are made each year by this industry. Looking good helps us feel at our best, healthy, productive, and successful. On those “down” days, cosmetics can be a mood lifter because just looking better leads us to feel better.

Well, we all know there are 365 days in a year (of course in leap year we add one more for a total of 366). Once a year on Ash Wednesday, Catholics as well as some other Christian denominations demonstrate a complete “about-face”.  No more beauty products on that day. Rather, we gravitate to the local Church and humbly wait in long lines so those dirty, ugly, smelly ashes placed on our foreheads in a more-or-less sign of the cross, depending on the dexterity of the hand places the ashes there.

Why?

This year I decided to look up a little history of ashes on Ash Wednesday and in this blog I’d like to share some with you.

I found out that the use of sackcloth and ashes were signs of inner mourning, deep repentance or humility in many cultures as far back as 3,000 years ago. Homer wrote sackcloth and ashes 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.

Old Testament references also refer to sackcloth and ashes.

As early as the second century, the Church encouraged sackcloth and ashes for the same symbolic reasons. During the second century, Tertullian wrote that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Eusebius in the third century tells the story of how the apostate Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. At this time, any penitent who was given a public penance during their confession would bow their head so that the priest could sprinkle ashes on his or her head as their left the confessional.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, some people would go ahead and privately sprinkle ashes on themselves as a sign of repentance. During this time, this practice was changed to a public penance and the priest instead of sprinkling would rub the ashes onto the person’s forehead in the shape of the cross.

A very interesting fact that I discovered is that 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.”

During the same eighth century, ashes were chosen as a mark of the beginning of Lent. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” can be found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates to this period.

Then in about 1000 AD, at the beginning of our Lent ashes were placed upon people’s foreheads.

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

By the thirteenth century even the Holy Father submitted to this discipline.

-Sister Timothy Marie