In the 17th. c.,
a style of painting known as "vanitas painting" became popular (see above).
This style included elements that represented temporal bounty - flowers,
fruits, etc., and symbols of riches, such as gold and jewels. These gorgeous
gifts from God were then juxtaposed with symbols that showed the reality
of death, usually a skull, or an hourglasses that symbolized the passage
The point of this style is the moral of which Ecclesiasticus 1 reminds us,
"What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh..." In other words,
the things of this world are transient, and Christians must always keep one
eye on the world to come.
Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes on
the forehead on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten Season of penance:
to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our Western
culture now desperately tries to euphemize away, and that we are radically
dependent on -- solely dependent on -- Jesus Christ to overcome this
They are like a yearly reading of the tombstone inscribed with:
as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
-- or as one would
say in Latin, "Hodie mihi, cras tibi" ("Today me, tomorrow you"). They are
a liturgical "memento mori."
In Genesis 3:19 we hear God tell us "for dust thou art, and into dust thou
shalt return," but nowadays, when someone dies, they are rushed from deathbed
to funeral home to be embalmed and to be worked over by a make-up artist
so that that "dusty reality" is hidden from us. Their deaths are spoken of
as almost an embarrassment; "he passed," they say, or "he is no longer with
us." These comforting but sterile luxuries weren't an option in the past
when plagues felled so many people that there weren't enough survivors to
bury them, when bodies had to be stored all winter until the ground was soft
enough to dig, when most of the children a woman bore died before they were
able to grow up. In our culture, with our medicines and "funeral sciences,"
we are afraid to look at death, and we are a poorer people because of it.
No matter how long science can prolong life, no matter how much embalming
fluid is pumped into a corpse, Nature will have her way. This is the hideous
Truth. And when Nature has her way, we can either rest in the knowledge that
the ultimate Victor is Christ, Our Lord, Who walked out of His tomb 2,000
years ago and offers resurrection to us, or we can believe that decay is
all that is left. This is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
Ashes are used, too, to express the penitence necessary to come to Christ
so that we can experience bodily resurrection at the End of the Age.
Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.
The Blessing and Disposition of the Ashes
The ashes are made
by the burning of palms from last year's
Palm Sunday. The blessing of the ashes begins
with an antiphon and a verse of a psalm begging God's grace and mercy. Then
come four prayers which express what the ashes symbolize and how they are
to be seen and used by us:
1. To be a spiritual help for all who confess their sins.
2. To secure pardon of sins for those who receive the ashes.
3. To give us the spirit of contrition.
4. To give us the grace and strength to do penance.
After the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water
and incenses them, he puts some on his own head,
and then on the heads of those present, the head being the seat of pride.
He puts them on our foreheads in the shape of a Cross to remind us of our
hope, and as he does so, he says the words of Genesis 3:
homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris (Remember,
man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return).
We make no response
to these words; we simply return to our pews.
Following the disposition of the ashes come two Antiphons and a Response.
Then the priest says another prayer for protection in the coming combat.
After we leave the church, we leave the ashes on our foreheads until they
wear off naturally from the course of the day's activities. They are a public
witness to those things our society does not wish to embrace: the reality
of death, and the hope of resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Note: another (informal) use of ashes in the Church is the saving
of ashes from the fire built on the Eve of the Feast of the Birth of St.
John the Baptist (23 June) to mix with water to bless the sick.