Faith Alive

Carrying our ashes with us throughout Lent

Faith Alive! 2016 No. 9 — Ashes


We should remember this ritual gesture of receiving ashes throughout Lent.

It reflects the view presented in Hebrews: We are indeed in need of forgiveness, and we still call on God for that forgiveness.

But now we no longer invest power in the ashes themselves. The ashes now indicate that our hope and salvation is in Christ Jesus.

The tone ashes set for Lent

By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

As the flames from a bonfire’s logs begin to die down and finally die out, it seems initially that only ashes remain. But closer inspection typically reveals that glowing embers remain alive under the ashes.

With effort, and with added twigs and logs, these embers often can be fanned back into flame. So it is important not to sell ashes short, so to speak, not prematurely to declare a fire entirely dead.

This image of burnt but glowing embers underscores a basic Lenten theme: Faith’s flame always can be renewed. Pope Francis employed this image in a 2014 Holy Week homily for priests.

Drawing from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (1:6), Pope Francis said, “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is within you” — in this case the priest’s gift of “gladness” and “joy.”

This gift, he said, “can lie dormant, or be clogged by sin or by life’s troubles, yet deep down it remains intact, like the embers of a burnt log beneath the ashes, and it can always be renewed.”

A tone is set for Lent when worshipers’ foreheads are marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday. What spark of new life hides beneath the ashes, waiting to be fanned into flame by individuals, families or communities?

For people of faith, Lent poses that question relentlessly.

Lent sets the stage for a journey into a new, fuller life. Christ died and rose to new life. Christians believe that in this way he established a pattern that holds true for everyone.

Pope Francis strongly believes that responding to the needs of others is a pathway to new life. He mentions this in his message for Lent 2016, pointing out that Lent unfolds this year during the church’s Year of Mercy.

“Faith finds expression in concrete, everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them,” he writes. But how are these merciful actions a path to fuller life for those who practice them?

The pope explains that particularly “in the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness” and thus “receive the gift of realizing that [we] too are poor and in need.”

The serious hurts that weigh people down assume multiple forms. What these hurts tend to share is a capacity to make it feel as if life has reached some kind of discouraging endpoint and to rob people of hope.

Lent affirms, however, that new life can arise from the many painful “deaths” that people experience here and now. It can arise from the ashes of their disappointments, fears, mistakes, angers or sense of loss.

Somewhat paradoxically, the deadened ashes that set Lent’s tone underscore this possibility. Thus Lent parallels and builds upon life as we know it.

Lent is a season for reawakening to all the hope faith holds for life in this world and the next. God, as Pope Francis insisted late in January, never is indifferent, never turns away from human suffering.

Think of people who experience a devastating sense of failure, perhaps after a job loss. This can be unbearably painful. Over time, though, a crisis like this often leads, with support from others, to a new self-awareness.

Then, with a fresh perspective on themselves and a new appreciation for their best interests and finest talents, many make a new start toward a happier life.

Think also of husbands and wives whose marriages drift listlessly downward. Their communication diminishes; they take less interest in each other. Still, many of these marriages will survive and actually thrive.

That is because many couples, reaching a point of crisis, wake up to the possibility that they can restart their marriages, perhaps aided by outside counseling and the caring support of friends and families. By giving up habits that damaged them as couples, their marriages start to grow again.

Lent reminds Christians that life is full of starting points. Naturally it does not always feel that way. Sometimes it feels that life is at an awful standstill.

Late in 2008, with the recent, great economic recession wreaking ravages of fear and hopelessness in households everywhere, Cardinal Adam J. Maida, now Detroit’s retired archbishop, spoke of this. He wrote:

“Wherever there is death, there is also reason for hope and resurrection, new birth and new life. After a fire 200 years ago devastated our then-frontier settlement of Detroit, Father Gabriel Richard wrote [of the city]: ‘We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.'”

Those words became the city’s motto.

Christians view Lent as a journey out of lifestyles that allow little room for God, for serving others’ needs or even for taking an accurate account of one’s own dignity and worth. It is a journey away from hopelessness.

At the same time Christians view Lent as a journey into the new life of love — the new creation — that a rapidly approaching Easter signals.

(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)

Carrying our ashes with us throughout Lent

By Mike Nelson

Catholic News Service

Most of us are guilty at one time or another of being judgmental of others. For me, it’s always been about the ashes.

I am genuinely puzzled as to why ashes on Ash Wednesday seem so important to some people, almost as if the ashes possess some mysterious power.

I’ve seen people — some with the frantic look of a shopper fearing a missed bargain at the mall — show up halfway through Masses, at the end of Masses, between Masses, just long enough to get signed on the forehead, and then off they go.

Why, I’ve wondered, are these folks so unconcerned about receiving the body and blood of Jesus, or hearing the word of God, or sharing prayer and fellowship with one another? Can we logically and legitimately receive ashes without caring about the Mass?

I’ve always thought no — but maybe my thinking is ash-backwards.

Ashes, in our Catholic tradition, are an important sign and symbol of who we are as Catholic disciples of Jesus. Because they are made from the burnt palms of the prior year’s Passion Sunday celebration, they are a tangible connection to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Mark Hart of Lifeteen, a youth movement in the church, suggests that ashes, rooted (like all creation) in the dust of the earth, connect us to two other significant events in Scripture: Jesus’ healing of the blind man, by using earth and saliva to make clay (Jn 9:1-41), and the very creation of man from “the dust of the ground” (from Gn 2:7), which we hear at the Easter Vigil.

Put another way, ashes help lead us to Easter. Ashes are important, not just on Ash Wednesday.

Ashes and the meaning they carry should travel constantly with us throughout Lent. They remind us of our need to repent, to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” as we are told on Ash Wednesday as we are marked with ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. By wearing that cross, we say to the world:

“We are followers of the Jesus, who died for our sins. Though we are sinners, we pledge to do better, for we believe that Jesus walks beside all of us. Moreover, we are called to serve as Jesus serves — with compassion and mercy.”

Compassion and mercy. The reality is that I don’t know what these folks who come to church solely for ashes are thinking, or what their spirituality is, or what is going on in their lives.

Indeed, for some people, burdened with responsibilities of family, job and Lord knows what else, it’s all they can do to get to church for even a few minutes.

Conversely, there is no guarantee that those of us, myself included, who attend and stay for the whole Mass week after week behave any holier or have been transformed more completely than those coming solely for ashes.

And doesn’t Jesus tell us to avoid that whole “Look at holy me!” attitude?

What that tells me — especially in this Year of Mercy — is that I need to refrain from harsh judgments of those whose hearts and minds I can’t possibly know.

“These people have come to a holy place,” I have told myself more than once. “Rejoice and be glad.”

In other words, where there is a cross, visible or invisible, there is Christ. In this Year of Mercy, maybe we need to expand our thinking about this venerable symbol of our faith, as well as those who receive it.

Ashes: sign of God’s presence in the world, sign of compassion and mercy, sign of the abundant love that God wishes to share.

And, like ashes, there is plenty of that to go around.

(Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)

Spiritually covering ourselves in ashes

By Daniel S. Mulhall

Catholic News Service

In the Bible, covering oneself in ashes is a symbolic action, a way of expressing grief, humiliation or penitence, and to call on God’s mercy. The practice is found throughout the Old Testament and continues even today in various forms.

In the Book of Esther, the Jewish people are condemned to death by King Ahasuerus. In response to this condemnation, the Jewish response was to clothe themselves in ashes to beg for God’s mercy.

“Likewise in each of the provinces, wherever the king’s decree and law reached, the Jews went into deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament; most of them lay on sackcloth and ashes,” we hear in Esther 4:3.

The prophet Jeremiah encourages the same practice when he tells people to “dress in sackcloth, roll in the ashes. Mourn as for an only child with bitter wailing” (Jer 6:26).

Jesus clearly knew and appreciated the practice of using ashes as a way of expressing one’s grief or sorrow, as is seen in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes also were used as part of a cleansing ritual in Israel, as is seen in Numbers 19:1-10. The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament notes this practice and applies it to Jesus:

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

“For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:11-14).

Today, the practice of covering ourselves with ashes continues, although we no longer roll around in them: a simple cross on our foreheads is enough. By receiving ashes we show that we too are in need of God’s loving and forgiving mercy.

We should remember this ritual gesture of receiving ashes throughout Lent. It reflects the view presented in Hebrews: We are indeed in need of forgiveness, and we still call on God for that forgiveness. But now we no longer invest power in the ashes themselves. The ashes now indicate that our hope and salvation is in Christ Jesus.

While the sign we receive on Ash Wednesday will eventually fade or wash away, what it symbolizes will remain as long as we continue to place our trust in following Jesus.

(Mulhall is a catechist. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.)


Even though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, it is one of the most well-attended days in any given parish. However, the ashes and their meaning should remain with us throughout our Lenten journey, even though sometimes we forget it as soon as we wipe the ashes from foreheads.

Remember that without ashes — without repentance and an effort to renounce sin — there is no Easter.

In “God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter,” Beth Bevins says that ashes signify death and but also our “status as sinners.” Yet they’re also reminders of the other side of the coin: our hope in the Easter and a resurrection.

The symbol of ashes, the practices we are to take up at that time, “is meant to assist in the process of cleaning our hearts and preparing our spirits for the celebration of Easter,” she writes.


Father Ken Simpson burns palms to create ashes for Ash Wednesday as students from St. Clement School in Chicago look on Feb. 17, 2015. This image of burnt but glowing embers underscores a basic Lenten theme: Faith’s flame always can be renewed. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)