Dies Cinerum – The Day of Ashes
The Dies Cinerum, or Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, and strangely it’s one of the more popular days for attending church even though it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. As a child I always liked going to the service, which is very much like most Masses except that the people are called forward and ashes which have been blessed will be rubbed onto their foreheads, in the shape of a cross (Signum Crucis). The ashes are made from palm fronds of the prior years Palm Sunday and while the ashes are placed on the forehead the Priest or person ministering will say “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” or “Turn from sin and follow the Gospel”.
I often run into people that ask “Where is Ash Wednesday in the Bible?”, and for my part there was a time when I asked the same question. Well the simple answer is that it is not in the bible. It is a tradition that formed after the bible was written and is found in western christianity starting around the eighth century. The placing of ashes on the head however is in the bible and can be found in several places as an act accompanying fasting, repentance, and sorrow for ones sins. For instance Israel is exhorted to put on sackcloth and ashes by the prophet Jeremiah and Job makes this statement: ” With the hearing of the ear, I have heard you, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes..” Job 42 5-6. Ash Wednesday is a fast day that begins a season of fasting in preparation for Easter, which explains why the tradition of ashes found it’s way into practice. In other words, the symbolism and participation in an ancient expression of repentance, make Ash Wednesday a beautiful way to begin Lent.