The symbolism of Ash Wednesday is strong and stark. In the Catholic Church, it marks the beginning of Lent, when churches traditionally change their appearance. Vestments and altar cloths change from white or green to a sober purple. Statues are also covered in purple and flowers disappear from the altar. Taken together with practices such as fasting and other acts of self-denial, they define Lent as a time of austerity. It fits naturally with austere and straitened times and moods in public life – with war, for example, bushfires, COVID, political fecklessness and recession.
Ashes themselves are a powerful symbol. They are the remains of destruction by fire. They remind us of the loss of wealth, power, status or health that comes with age, defeat or social change. The bonfire of the vanities collapses into the ashes of loss. In Catholic life, the symbolism of ashes is made even starker by association with the fires of hell and purgatory, with the history of the burning of heretics, martyrs and churches, and the bombing of Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima. Ashes remind us of the insecurity of lives, the transient glories of power, wealth and intelligence, the human capacity for savagery beneath a veneer of civilisation, the death and dissolution that come to all human beings, and the seriousness of the call to conversion. These are the themes of Lent.
Ashes are also a symbol of humiliation. In our culture, civilisation and elegance are often seen to begin with sweeping dust and ashes from houses and with removing them from our skin and clothing. A substantial part of our economy is based on producing cleanliness. As a result, we identify burned or scorch-marked clothing and dirty skin as a sign of poverty, a lack of due self-care, or human decline. To be dirty humiliates us. The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word for soil. It points to the bare, forked reality that we share with animals. In Christian terms, it also reminds us of the weakness, betrayals and neglect that mark our lives, no matter how elaborately we create a self-image to conceal them. The humiliation of Lent is to recognise what and who we are and to know that God loves and cares for us as we are. To leave ashes on our foreheads after Mass is a strong and challenging symbol.
Ashes are also a symbol of the seasonal regeneration that follows burning. After bushfires, tree trunks remain black and leave marks on us if we brush against them. Green shoots, however, gradually emerge from ashes and sprout from blackened tree branches. In the forest, death yields to life. That, of course, is also the whole point of Lent. Its ashes do not have the last word. Life continues, regenerates, and spreads from the ashes. In the Christian story, the ash of bare and sinful humanity reflects the love that leads God to share the ashes of our life, the humiliation of dying naked on a cross, and to rise green from the ashes.
The ashes of Lent look forward to the green and spreading vine of Easter by which in Christ we are received into the happiness of the kingdom of God.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.