Paul Robson sj
Coming up this week is Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the season of Lent. At the Holy Cross Church here in Wiikwemkoong, and in many churches around the world, there will be a distribution of ashes at Mass on Wednesday. In some parts of the world, the ashes are sprinkled on the heads of the faithful. Our local custom is to place the ashes on the forehead, in the form of a cross. We might be interested in knowing: why ashes, and why the forehead?
My investigation of these questions has revealed that there is a long history involved, going back to the pre-Christian traditions of the Jewish people as recorded in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). There are stories in the Old Testament of people sprinkling ashes on their own heads, or sitting in ashes. The placing of a mark on the forehead is also found in the Old Testament, as seen in one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. (See Ezekiel 9:4.)
The meaning behind the ashes, as I understand it, is one of penance for wrongdoing; or the ashes can represent mourning and death. Regarding the forehead, in the Catholic Church today, we make the sign of the cross on the forehead not only on Ash Wednesday, but at the time of Baptism and Confirmation, and during the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Also, at the time of the reading of the Gospel at Mass, all are invited to make the sign of the cross, first on their foreheads, then on their lips, then over their hearts. As we make these gestures, we can think of a short prayer such as this one: “The word of God be ever in my mind, proclaimed by my lips, and pierce my heart leading me to deeper communion with you, Jesus.”; Or a simpler prayer is: “May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips and in my heart.” May God bless us during this season of Lent. May it be a time of repentance and turning to God, and a time of quietly waiting for the celebration of Easter.