Ashes and Remembrance: An Insight into Ashes on the Forehead

  • Post category:Lifestyle

Tradition of Lent

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“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16) If you are Catholic, you have probably heard this “condemnation” of the practice. Even some Protestants use ashes to mark the beginning of lent. It has been called a “Pagan” practice or “anti-Christian.” Sometimes even people who are well-versed in the history of Christ’s Church have problems with the history of this practice. The good news is:

  1. The Practice is Biblical;
  2. Jesus did command it;
  3. The roots go the whole way back to the old testament.

One of the greatest threats that assaults the Christian roots of this country is the schism between the churches. Some people choose to interpret the Bible on their own, without the benefit of history. They tend to steer others away from the spirit and purpose of traditions. Note that when Christ said: “You have disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men’, he also said, ‘You neatly set aside the commandment of God to maintain your own tradition…” (Mark 7:9)

This passage is condemning traditions that lead people away from the Church. There are several passages in the Bible that clarify that doing things for spiritual reasons. Also because they are traditions of the Church and are good for the soul;

  1. Matthew 9:14-17 “Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
  2. 2 Thess 2:15 “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by letter from us.”
  3. 1 Cor 11:2 “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.”
  4. Titus 1:13-14 “The testimony is true. For this reason, reprove them severely so that they may be sound in faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.”

Each of these passages is a defense of traditions that are done in faith. Condemnation of such traditions are done simply for the machinations of man.


In our faith during Lent, we have the celebration and remembrance. The whole of Lent we celebrate the Mass, welcoming Christ into our lives. This because we know, above all things, that he conquered death. We also have a solemn remembrance of the failures of our forebears.

We remember in this, 40 days before Passover all the failures. The failures of the Jews who turned Christ over to death. Who themselves were the forebears of the Christian Church. Also those failures that we as humankind have had since then. We continue to have them in our daily lives. The celebration is the joyous part of the season.

Even though this is a season of fasting and penitence, we are also celebrating the Holy Mass. The celebration is every hour of every day (except Good Friday where we have a service). This Celebration is because even though we know that we have sinned and continue to sin, Christ loves us and died to save us. Of all things in this world, this is among the most important to celebrate. The other being that God loved us enough to create us. That God as the Spirit loves us enough to bless us in our daily lives. This is the celebration of life over death, of faith over fear, of hope over despair and of love over hate.


We also remember that we are a people who have sinned. We have allowed sin to come into the mainstream of life. Too often people conflate this only with original sin, or the sin of the people who put Christ to death. In fact, they were already forgiven by Christ himself upon the Cross. “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do” Luke 23:34. We need to remember the sins of the world. Sins such as the Trail of Tears, turning a blind eye to slavery, allowing Hitler to rise to power, and other great atrocities of the last 2000 years.

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We also remember the sins that we allow in the world, through action or inaction. Sins such as the on-going human sex trade, human rights abuses and genocide in Africa and the Middle East. Poverty exists even here in the richest country in the world. We can’t forget the day-to-day attacks on morality that go unchecked by the vast majority of people.

We even remember the times when we personally were not as strong as we should have been. Don’t forget we have the Spirit as the advocate. We should stand up for what is right at all times. But we also know that when we falter, Christ is with us to forgive.

Standing for What We have been Taught

We often hear that early Christians did not do the Rite of Ashes when they began Lent. Fortunately, this is not true. As Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie loudly enough and long enough, people see it as the truth.” The truth of the matter is that that the practice of adorning one’s head with blessed ashes has been around since the beginning of the Church. Even mainstream publications, like Britannica, acknowledge the origins of the ritual were celebrated from the very beginning of the church.

This makes it an easy argument that it falls well within 2 Thess 2:15. Even as the Church moved its capital to Rome, this tradition of early Christians took hold. It did fall out of favor between the 8th and 10th centuries, but was reclaimed in the counter-reformation. Why do we do this?

Well, because it is within the spirit of Lent, of Celebration and Remembrance. The practice of placing ashes on oneself derives from Genesis (3:19). It states: “You are dust and unto dust, you shall return,” but it also goes deeper than that. Throughout history, people who were penitent, either for themselves or others, would cover themselves in Ash and sackcloth.

One of the best examples of this is when Mordicai went through the city covered in ashes (Ester 4:1). Also when Ester herself forsook her perfumes and oils and covered her head with ashes. This was done because it was a symbol of purification (Hebrews 9:13). The practice does take on another level, however, as the ashes themselves are blessed.

As Hebrews notes, the ashes that were used in the early Church were from sacrifices used to Sanctify the flesh. We ourselves are sanctified through Christ’s sacrifice and the Eucharist. The symbolism is still present in the ashes. They are the ashes of blessed palms mixed with blessed oil (or Holy Water in a pinch). This is a symbol of our purification, both through the sacrifices offered to God by the Jews and by Christ.

Also it is the blessings of the spirit, in the Blessed Ashes and Blessed oils. These traditions have been passed down by word and by writing in the pattern set forth by Paul. If we understand 1 Cor 11:2, we are blessed because we are following traditions that help us remember. Remember not only Christ, but that we can do better than our sinful ways.

We Will be Tested

One of the scariest things in the Bible comes from Revelations. It is in the Beast, the Harlot, and False Prophet. Scary not in their persons, but in the parody which they create of the True Faith. Without going into a dissertation on Revelations (B. Barron’s Lessons on this are Very Good), the Beast is a Parody of the Lamb.

It adorns itself with crowns, marks itself as having been slain and risen (though it has not) and acts as if its power is it’s own. Unlike Christ, who was forced to wear the crown of thorns, was slain and rose from the grave and acknowledged that all power came from God in Heaven. The Harlot is the Parody of the Virgin Mary. She has impurity, support of infidelity and immorality, along with the utmost pride. The Harlot is a direct contrast to the Virgin Mary, who remained pure, stayed faithful and moral and was humble in all things.

The False Prophet, whom we can easily see in the historical record around the turn of the 5th century, spoke out in a two truths and one lie format. Usually he spoke against what was taught by Christ. The truly scary part is that we are told that we will be tested, not only by these phantoms of hell but also by other people. Examples describing this abound.

In Titus 1:13-14 “The testimony is true. For this reason, reprove them severely so that they may be sound in faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.” We are told that there will be those who turn away from the truth, those that leave the Church of Christ for their own interpretation. They will abandon history and tradition and place the Word in the context of what they want it to say. This is the “living interpretation” of the Bible, which people use to justify their lifestyles and actions.

The true danger of this is when they conflate their interpretation of the Bible against what is written and say that “Jesus would have accepted X.” Jesus would have accepted all people because Jesus loved all people. At no time, when He chose not to condemn a person, did he ever justify the actions for which they are accused (Look at the woman being stoned, the tax collectors or the Roman Guard). He still condemned sin in all its forms, but he accepted the sinners who wanted to be better people.


When people challenge an action in your faith, ask yourself why you are doing it. Whether it be the Eucharist, Christmas, or Ashes on your forehead, don’t worry about their preconceptions. God knows what is in your heart and he loves you. If your actions are done because you love him and are honestly trying to bring yourself closer to him (without hurting others in the process), then why does it matter what other people say to challenge you? I have seen dozens of Bible passages and half passages used to challenge every element of the faith.

One must remember that this practice was started by the Devil in the Bible. The part when he was tempting Jesus in the Desert. Do not let those that do not understand your heart chase you away from the faith. This is also a time of year when we should welcome others back into the Church. If there is one unifying time during the year for us to forgive of the past, it is Lent.

Take a moment to talk to someone who has stepped away from the faith. Let them know that they can come home to the church with you. Sometimes all that they are looking for is a person to help them. Sometimes they need you to be the Light of the Lord Jesus Christ in their lives. Do not be pushy. Faith is not something that can be forced. Be the Christian Christ would want you to be when you welcome people home.

Christopher W Smithmyer
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