Why We Put Ashes on Our Forehead


17 February 2010 Ash Wednesday
Joel 2, 12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Cor 5, 20-6,2; Matthew 6, 1-18

This article appears in SAMBUHAY in English. Sambuhay is published by the Society of St. Paul in the Philippines. It is used as a guide during masses especially Sundays and other important liturgical celebrations such as today.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. We are reminded that we should be reconciled with God in view of the salvation completed in Easter with the Resurrection of Christ. How do we then celebrate Ash Wednesday?

First, the sorrow of Lent in the symbol of the ash. In the Old and New Testament, a repentant sinner wears sackcloth and covers himself with ashes. The ash that is placed on our forehead symbolizes repentance. But these are outward signs of repentance. The Lord tells us in the first reading that we should rend, not our clothes, but our hearts. We should return to the Lord with all our hearts, with fasting and weeping, begging on our knees for the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. The kind of heart that is asked in the Lenten season is a contrite heart; its sorrow is deep and inward. We can call this feeling as a holy and blessed sorrow because this is about our relationship with God. It is not the tears that comes from an actor’s eyes, or from a broken-hearted, or from our experience of death and hurt. This time it is not about us as victims of pain; but us as the cause of another’s pain. It is about another, and this time, it is about God. It is a sorrow because we have hurt someone else and we would like to repair the damage that we have done. We cry because our relationship with another has been severed and it is constantly bleeding. We weep because we have contributed to the injustice in our society. Until today, we are still haunted by the memory of the Maguindanao massacre or the people affected by the floods. When Christians — yes, not just Catholics — put ashes on their forehead, we, as a community, declare a worldwide day of repentance. We acknowledge that our sins affect others.

Second, the joy of Lent. This may come as a surprise, but it isn’t. We look at our sins in the background of the love of God. We are sorry for our offenses because God continually loves us despite our unfaithfulness. That means when we repent, we know that God will forgive us because God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness.” Psalm 51 is a celebration of God’s mercy towards us. Mercy and a renewal of heart are guaranteed to those who sincerely asks for forgiveness. The Anglo-Saxon word for Lent is spring. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of our transition from winter to spring! Psalm 126 says, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!” Thus, our joy comes from contrition and penance. In our lives, this is illustrated by the joy we experience when someone forgives us; when having offended our parents and being forgiven, we weep with comfort, relief and joy!

Thus, the meaning of Lent becomes profoundly true in view of spring, in view of Easter. The Gospel reminds us that we should not appear fasting like the hypocrites. Our faces should be washed clean like those with assured joy. It is a tragedy that many of us remain in Lent, and forget the joy of Easter. We think Christianity is centered on sorrow, and not on joy. This is why we have contributed to a dark and gloomy Christianity. We must not miss the point of repentance. We repent because we want to return to the embrace of God, as the son returns to his loving father in the parable of Jesus. It is therefore not an accident that we call the Season of Lent a celebration. Like all celebrations, the most successful event is a result of thorough preparation. Lent prepares us for the overwhelming joy of Easter.

Finally, the role of the community. Paul exhorts us that we should work together to receive the grace of God. Thus, we should help each other create the environment for repentance. It can mean physical space like dried twigs on church altars, simple music for masses during Lent or communal participation in reconciliation services. It also means that we can encourage one another, that indeed this is the “acceptable time” to return to God. Many people come to Ash Wednesday mass because the hope in the possibility of returning to God is enkindled. There is in our hearts parts that we hold back and needs to be re-joined to God. Or for many, the time to once more strengthen one’s faith is created when members of the Christian community work together to make the Lenten Season meaningful. Ash Wednesday then is an acceptable time, the day of our salvation!

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