The Nothingness of Dust – Ash Wednesday
Have you ever wondered about the source of the ashes that we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday? Nowadays, most parishes order them from religious goods suppliers. But I’m sure there are still a few parishes and communities that produce them the old-fashioned way.
When I was a Jesuit novice in Guelph, Ontario in the late 1970s, the community sacristan was a truly-one-of-a-kind Jesuit Brother named Eugene McLaren. Just after Easter each year, Brother Gene would gather up the unused palms from Palm Sunday. He’d bring them outside and burn them in a tin can he kept for that purpose.
Then, after the ashes cooled off, he’d place them in a container and store them in the sacristy for the next Ash Wednesday. That’s where our ashes come from. I’ve always loved that image. It speaks so beautifully of the cyclical dimension to the liturgical celebrations of the Church.
So, where exactly did Ash Wednesday come from? Jesus certainly didn’t mention it. Ashes have significance in the Old Testament. References to “sackcloth and ashes” abound. They were used in ancient times to express grief.
Jesus makes reference to sackcloth and ashes in two of the Gospels. “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes.”
The early Church shows us that people continued to use ashes as an external sign of repentance. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) said that confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes.
Like many good Christian practices, the roots of this day are of non-Christian origin. It was accepted into the beliefs of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. But it still took a while to get to the holy day of prayer, fasting, and repentance that we acknowledge.
By the end of the 10th century, the imposition of ashes was customary in most of Western Europe (but not in Rome, ironically). It was in 1091 that Pope Urban II standardized the practice and liturgical books finally referred to Feria Quarta Cinerum (Ash Wednesday).
Its name derives from the placing of ashes on the foreheads of participants. There is no set method for imposing the ashes, though the most common method in this part of the world is to have the minister smudge the sign of the cross on the forehead.
The 40 days of Lent is an allusion to the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. The Lenten season is 46 days long, with the six Sundays considered feast days.
I always benefit from these wise words of Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J. Let’s ponder them as we set out on this forty-day pilgrimage towards Easter.
“Dust – truly a splendid symbol. Dust, this is the image of the commonplace. There is always more than enough of it. One fleck is as good as the next. Dust is the image of anonymity: one fleck is like the next, and all are nameless. It is the symbol of indifference: What does it matter whether it is this dust or that dust? It is all the same.
Dust is the symbol of nothingness: because it lies around so loosely, it is easily stirred up, it blows around blindly, is stepped upon and crushed – and nobody notices. It is a nothing that is just enough to be – a nothing. Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing: it has no content, no form, no shape; it blows away, the empty, indifferent, colourless, aimless, unstable booty of senseless change, to be found everywhere, and nowhere at home.
Truly, then, scripture is right. We are dust. We are always in the process of dying. We are the beings who set our course for death, when we set out on life’s journey, and steer for death, clearly and inexorably. We are the only beings who know about this tendency to death. We are dust!”