Francis of Assisi
556 South Jersey Street; Denver, CO 80224
National Catholic Church (PNCC)
St. Francis of Assisi Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) @2008
The Meaning of Ashes
On Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), the dried and withered branches from the previous year Palm Sunday were reduced by the power of fire to dust and ashes. On Ash Wednesday, those ashes are traced in the form of a cross on the forehead of the believers as the priest recites the words of God from Genesis, "Remember, 0 man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
The ashes symbolize the frailty, the uncertainty, the instability of material things. As the palms which were once green and fresh are now dried and withered, so all things run their course and come to an end. Man's bodies change, grow old, and die. Man's possessions, carefully amassed and guarded, slip away without warning. Man's achievements terminate. Kings and rulers come and go. The words of administration, "Remember, 0 man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." These words were once spoken to the couple cast out of the Garden of Eden because they placed their trust in material things. They are now spoken to us as we enter Lent. That we may not become another Adam and another Eve, we are urged to cast away our trust in material things, and place our faith in One alone who is unchanged, stable, eternal Almighty God. The ashes fortify our faith in the eternity of God.
The use of ashes deepen our penitence and contrition because we realize how often we fall short of the glory which is expected of us. We who have received the grace of God through Baptism and Confirmation, who continue to receive the grace of God through penance and Holy Communion, through prayer and Christian effort, do not attain to all that we might be. We fall short, as St. Paul tells us, of the glory of God. We are spiritual athletes who fail to make the mark. For the human tendency is to sin, to trust in man and things. The ashes reveal to us the need of penitence for our trust in the things of the world and our own powers. As they are imposed on our foreheads, they become a dedication of self to God.
We who were once traced with the cross in Holy Baptism, we who are signed with the cross so often in absolution and blessing, are now marked with the cross of ashes to remind us that life is meaningless without God, that effort is meaningless apart from God. We are traced with the cross of ashes that we may devote our lives with renewed intensity to spiritual things.
"Rend your heart and not your garments", cries the prophet Joel in the Ash Wednesday Epistle. Receive not only the cross of ashes on your foreheads, but receive the cross of ashes in your hearts.