My father loved trees. Planting a maple or basswood or spruce in the yard was an event, a celebration of sorts, cooperating with God the Creator and investing in the future. I asked him on one of those occasions why trees were so important to him, and he said, “I will never see this tree fully grown, but someone else will; and they can enjoy what we have done today.”
We also had a small wood-burning stove in the basement. It became a winter evening ritual to stoke the fire with oak from his uncle’s farm near St. John’s, smoke his pipe and read, usually something out of the history he had helped to make in the years around the Second World War. And every so often, we would shake the grate and empty the ashes, saving them to spread on next year’s garden.
The Church begins Lent each year with fasting, prayer, Scripture — and ashes. While ashes make their sole appearance on this one day, they are fairly common in the Bible’s pages. The two formulae used for the imposition of ashes point to their meaning, even though neither uses the term “ashes.”
The first is, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” — the first words of Jesus’ public ministry (Mark 1:15), the invitation to conversion. This text points to many Old Testament passages where “dust and ashes” symbolize our fragile life and an external mark of sorrow and remorse. Adam is created from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). This frailty is reflected often in ashes used as a mark of repentance in the books of Numbers, Joel, Jonah, 2 Samuel, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther.
Of these many texts, two are especially rich. In dialogue with God about the pervasive sinfulness of humanity, Abraham keeps questioning God about finding 50 or 40 or even 10 righteous people, even while acknowledging: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!” (Genesis 18:27). Abraham is awed, but not intimidated into silence, by God’s power; he wants to understand the Lord’s ways without presuming divine favor.
Similarly, Job’s lament about God’s seeming injustice is answered “out of the whirlwind” and concludes: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). Job reminds us that in the whirlwind of our own history, God answers not only in word but with his presence in Jesus, that we might see mercy made flesh and, even more, offered for us.
The second formula also omits the word “ashes” but points to them also: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” This sobering reminder is from Genesis 3:19 and follows the Fall, the original sinfulness that we all inherit. It is echoed by Ecclesiastes 3:20 and 12:7, and I have repeated those words hundreds of times in the Church’s burial rite.
So Scripture often associates ashes with dust, with repentance, with human imperfection. But why, in particular, ashes?
For the Bible, dust comes from inanimate matter, while ashes are the residue of what was once alive. Both have lost their wholeness, and all that is left is fragments. The Wednesday ashes that we use come from burning previous years’ blessed palms. They point ahead to Holy Week and the Passion of the Lord, but also back to our past good intentions, Easter joy and the confidence we once had in the risen Christ. Yet here we are, once again needing repentance. What was once so alive is now ashes; but ashes also fertilize the ground for new life, just as God gave the breath of life to dust in the beginning.
Isaiah promises exactly this, and Jesus quotes the prophet to announce his mission: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted … to comfort all who mourn; to place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes” (see 61:1-3; Luke 4:16-21). The Book of Daniel, too, promises: “Many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life” (12:2).
Fertilizing our garden with ashes underscores this passage from death to life. And though we never made soap with our ashes, some do; the theme of cleansing through the unlikely medium of ashes also fits well with Lent’s purpose, as Malachi hints: “The Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple … he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye … then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord, as in ancient days, as in years gone by” (3:1, 2, 4).
The forehead links us to the very first place we are marked ritually in baptism, sealed by the sign of the cross as members of the Body of Christ and assured that no matter what becomes of our “dust and ashes” in life, we are offered grace and the assurance of renewal by the Risen Lord, whose life we now share. That same place is marked so often with the sign of the cross as we begin our prayers; and at the end of our lives here, the Church provides the anointing of the sick on our foreheads and hands, where we are united with Christ in a death like his, that our own dust and ashes can be raised to perfect life with him.
Look at a tree, and see there someone’s investment, years ago, in your future. Look at the cross, and see Christ’s. The ashes weave many Scriptures to remind us of the faithful and redeeming love of the one who became dust and ashes with and for us, that we might become children of God.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Editor’s note: For Ash Wednesday this year, Bishop Donald Kettler is instructing parishes in the diocese to follow guidance recently issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in its “Note on Ash Wednesday: Distribution of Ashes in Time of Pandemic.” Ashes should be sprinkled on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on people’s foreheads, the note states.