We reflect on the Catholic tradition of putting ashes on our foreheads today.
Why Smear Ourselves with Ashes?
Johnny Go, SJ
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter—later made into a movie starring Demi Moore—opens with the leading character, Hester, being led to the scaffold where she is to be publicly humiliated for committing the sin of adultery. There she is forced to wear the letter “A” on her gown at all times as a sign of her sin. By wearing this letter, she is identified and labeled as a sinner. By wearing this label of her sin, she is ostracized and excluded from society.
I think the imposition of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday does something similar to us. Ashes are a sign of our sinfulness. The ashes on our foreheads are a label of our sinfulness, as the Scarlet Letter does to Hester. By receiving the mark on our forehead, we tell ourselves and one another: We are sinners, and like Hester in the novel, we deserve to be labeled as such, and we deserve to be ostracized and excluded from God’s Kingdom. If only for a day—or at least until the ashes fade, we carry this label on our foreheads so that we begin Lent without forgetting that we are weak and fragile people, capable of sin, even great sin, and deserving of punishment. In other words, the ashes on our forehead are supposed to tell us whowe are.
But there is a second reason, and we see this in another practice of labeling. We know of the practice of marking animals like sheep, cattle, and horses with the initials of the owner. We may have seen this on TV or in the movies: The animal is held down while the initials of its owner is burned on its behind. The purpose of this labeling is to indicate ownership.
When we think about it, the ashes that we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is not only supposed to be a label of our sinfulness but also a label of ownership as well. But instead of initials, the label that we will receive is the sign of the cross, which is the very sign of Christ. Through that sign of Christ on our foreheads, even if only for a day, we tell ourselves: We belong to Christ; we are his, because we all of us, though we are sinners, have been saved and redeemed by his death on the cross.
And so, when we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, each time we see ourselves in the mirror, and as day wears on and the ashes fade, let us remember what we are being labeled for: First, as in the case of the adulteress in the Scarlet Letter, it’s supposed to tell we who we are—We are sinners. But also, as in the case of sheep and cattle, it’s also supposed to tell us whose we are—We are Christ’s. We belong to Him.
But there’s more: The ashes on our forehead also tells us who God is, which is the very heart of the mystery that Lent invites us to reflect and pray about: That this Jesus, this God who is all-holy and all-good, willingly permitted himself to be labeled as a sinner, to be crucified among criminals, and to be rejected by His people so that we, who are sinners, may precisely be redeemed and owned by Him, and embraced by the loving and far-reaching arms of God.
If this Ash Wednesday finds you far from God, it’s time to turn back.