ashes to ashes

Are ashes relevant?

I’d like to open the discussion among colleagues in pastoral ministry and liturgy.

I had a conversation with one of my favorite retired canon lawyers who comes to visit us to preside at Sunday mass. We keep ashes in bowls on a table, conspicuously displayed in the sanctuary throughout lent. Before mass on Sunday, he asked if there was anything that we were supposed to do with the ashes. I explained that we keep them there. Hypothetically, if someone missed Ash Wednesday, they could give themselves their own ashes, but I continued to say, in my very awkward Elena fashion,

“…but it just doesn’t do much after Ash Wednesday…”

The priest asked me,
“Well what do they [the Ashes] normally do on Ash Wednesday?”.

“I mean,” I explained, ” it doesn’t interest people to give themselves Ashes, and especially after Ash Wednesday.  Ashes themselves don’t effect anything…Ashes don’t do anything, but we keep them displayed throughout Lent as a sign…”

(I am much better at writing than I am at communicating through speech…)

I think I concluded by saying that I needed to blog about this.

So, the question I posit today is…
Are ashes relevant?

Ashes are NOT sacramental signs like baptismal water or Chrism. There is no “Sacrament of Ashes” and yet many Catholics feel the need to return to church to receive them. Ashes are dirty, kind of icky and sometimes there are chunks of carbonized palm. So what does this curious phenomena say about our relationship with God?

Ultimately, according to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy,

The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance.

The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.

Canonical penance was the embryonic form of the sacrament of Penance that we know today. Prior to the introduction of tariff penance, in about the 10th century, people who committed major acts that were in contradiction to their Christian faith would request permission from the Episcopoi, or Bishop to enter the Order of Penitents on Ash Wednesday. A penance, often a very public one, would be proscribed by a council of leadership. Often, the proscribed penance, called exomologesis, would involve a series of public rituals of penitence. The Order of Penitents might be dismissed after a certain point in the liturgy, much like catechumens. The penitents would be publicly reconciled just before mass on Holy Thursday.

During their penitential period, the penitents might adopt a rather distinctive style of fashion. They would often wear sack-cloth or hair shirts, and put ashes on their heads.

So what do Ashes mean for us today?
Though some Eastern Rite Christians, and the Ambrosian Rite distribute ashes on other days, for the majority of Catholic Christians in the Americas, it’s unappealing to receive ashes on any other day but the first Wednesday of Lent. On Thursday, you just didn’t wash your face. On Friday, you’re rocking the look of a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. Ashes on any other day, without the group, is just unappealing.


Christianity is a faith of belonging. Ashes are a sign of belonging, often to a slightly wayward group of Christian believers. This is a lovable group of Catholics who might not be inclined to attend mass every Sunday, but manage to return at the beginning of Lent, with a bit of a sheepish,”hey, I know I should be here more often, but I’m here today” grin. While ashes may fail to make an immediate connection with their historical implications, they speak successfully of our basic spirituality.

Our God is a God of being, a God longing to be with us, and a God of belonging.
We belong to God, who is present among us wherever two or three are gathered.





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