A blessed Ash Wednesday to you! Today, I'd like to share an entry from one of my very favorite books, Father Xavier Leon Dufour's Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
Really, I cannot recommend this book enough. And I just saw that there are many inexpensive copies available online, so use a little of that money you saved in giving up your Big Mac habit to get one for yourself and enhance your Lenten spiritual reading!
Anyway, here's the entry on ashes. I think it gives some great food for thought (and speaking of food, it makes me quite grateful that we don't have to eat the ashes!).
The original meaning of ashes is a much debated question, in spite of their widespread use in most ancient religions. They are often associated with dust (the Septuagint translates “dust” by “ashes” on more than one occasion) and symbolize both the sin and weakness of man.
1. In the first place the heart of the sinner is compared with dust: Isaiah calls the idolator “a man who hankers after ashes” (Is 44,20), and the Wise Man says of him, “Ashes his heart, meaner than dirt his hope” (Ws 15,10). This is why the wages of sin can only be ashes: the proud will see themselves reduced to “ashes on the ground (Ez 28,18), and the wicked will be trodden under foot by the just like ashes” (Ml 3,21). Moreover, the sinner, who does not become hardened in his pride (Si 10,9) and who realizes his fault, confesses precisely that he is only “dust and ashes” (Gn 18,27; Si 17,32). And to prove to himself and others that he is convinced of this, he sits amid ashes (Jb 42,6; Jn 3,6; Mt 11,21 p) and covers his head with them (Jdt 4,11-15; 9,1; Ez 27,30).
2. But this same symbol of repentance is also used to express the sadness of man crushed by misfortune, no doubt because of a connection between misfortune and sin is taken for granted. When she is scorned Tamar covers herself with ashes (2 S 13,19); and so do the Jews when threatened by death (Es 4,1-4; cf 1 M 3,47; 4,39). In this way man wants to show the state to which he has been reduced (Jb 30,19) and even goes so far as to eat ashes (Ps 102, 10; Lm 3,16). But it is especially on the occasion of a bereavement that he feels nothingness and then he expresses it by covering himself with dust and ashes: “Wrap yourself in sackcloth, daughter of my people, roll in ashes; mourn…” (Jr 6,26).
A blessed Lenten journey to you all!Thus to cover oneself with ashes is to act in mime a sort of public confession (cf the liturgy of Ash Wednesday). Using the language of this lifeless matter that returns to dust, man admits himself sinful and weak, and in this way forestalls God’s judgment and attracts his mercy. To anyone admitting his nothingness like this is addressed the promise of the Messiah, as he comes to triumph over sin and death, “to comfort all who mourn, and to give them for ashes a garland” (Is 61,3).