The Impact of Blessed Ashes – "Spare us, O Lord" – a Deeper Life of Grace

“As a spiritual writer has said, ‘He mingles the ashes that are dead with the ashes yet alive,’ that the lifeless dust may impress upon us the solemn truth that we too are but dust, and that unto dust we shall return.”
Msgr. Sullivan – 1951 [source]
The tradition of receiving ashes on our foreheads is, today, so essential of an element of the Christian life that its call reaches even to those Catholics who, by their laxity, appear to no longer recognize the Voice of the Divine Shepherd.

The Church is packed on the day of ashes as if it were a holy day of obligation. This mysterious response on the part of those who otherwise have little regard for the instructions of the Church should impress the faithful who, upon witnessing this event, must let their own hearts open wide to grace through the embrace of the holy penance which inaugurates this sacred season of Lent.

The traditional blessing placed on the ashes, for those who receive them with devotion and contrition:
  • makes them a wholesome remedy and a source of health of body and safety of soul 
  • imparts the grace of contrition for sin
  • obtains an answer to our prayer for forgiveness of sin
  • makes us worthy to receive the rewards of the penitent
  • imparts the grace of enduring repentance
  • grants that our self-denial be made powerful against the evil spirits with whom we do combat.

As Dom Gueranger reminds us, this tradition of receiving ashes is quite ancient, dating as far back as the eleventh century. It was, at that time, accompanied by the added expression of contrition in the form of approaching the Church bare-footed to receive this memento mori sign of our future: that we will all one day meet our death and be judged. [Source]
Burning Victory

The former substance of these ashes are the blessed palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. This provides a powerful sign on many levels. These palms are symbols of the victory of Christ in His battle against sin and death. We keep these signs of victory in our homes as reminders all throughout the year following Easter: Christ indeed has risen, conquering man’s doom and supplying us with eternal life.

Yet, it is these palms which are burned and destroyed, signifying many things:
  • that sin can rob us of this promised victory, and
  • that this victory can only be achieved if it is sought through humility and repentance.

If we do not remember death and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we will not persevere to the end and be saved. Contrition, prayer, supplication, distrust of self, fasting, meditation, and mortification – these are the necessary remedies of the soul’s ills.

Though Christ has conquered sin and death, all men must still die. Death is the punishment for sin and is, since the Fall, the end of every man’s life. These sacred ashes, “the holy emblem of penance,” as Gueranger says, is tied to “the sentence of death which God Himself pronounces against us: 'Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return!'” [Source

It was the desire to be a god which brought man, at first exalted by sanctifying grace and made in God’s own image, down into the darkness of death and nothingness. If we, descended into this pit, but humble ourselves and turn back to Him, God has vowed to lift us from this sentence and exalt us into the company of His holy angels in glory.

The Blessing on the Ashes

In the Old Rite, which sanctified the Church for over a thousand years, we are given the full beauty and power of the sacramental of ashes. This rite of blessing is much richer, more theologically expressive, and more efficacious for the faithful than that of the modern rite.

There are four prayers of blessing over the ashes followed by a final prayer over the people. The ashes are also incensed and sprinkled with holy water.

The prayers over the ashes ask God to send His holy Angel to bless and sanctify them, making them a “wholesome remedy to all who humbly implore Thy holy Name.” Those who are sprinkled with these ashes, who are seeking the remission of sin, are to “receive both health of body and safety of soul.”

The prayers continue, stating that, by receiving these ashes “in token of our lowliness and to obtain forgiveness,” we may “deserve to obtain of Thy mercy, the pardon of all our sins, and the rewards promised to the penitent.” God is then petitioned to “pour forth upon the heads of Thy servants sprinkled with these ashes the grace of Thy blessing: that Thou mayest both fill them with the spirit of compunction, and effectually grant what they have justly prayed for: and ordain that what Thou hast granted may be permanently established and remain unchanged.”

After the distribution of the ashes, the final prayer asks that the self-denial which we embrace may then become, by God’s blessing, a source of protection during “the campaign of our Christian warfare” where “we do battle with the spirits of evil.”

Sanctified Penitence

The faithful traditionally receive these ashes kneeling, in a sign of penance and humility. When the “sentence of death” is pronounced against us at that moment, we should heed the counsel of Gueranger, who said, “Reflect, too, on that long list of sins, which you have added to the sin of your first parents, and adore the mercy of your God, who asks only one death for all these your transgressions.” [source]
Fr. William Barry counsels us to see the ashes as seeds of the palms of victory, indicating that if we die with and in Christ, we shall then obtain our victory. [source]

Keep in mind these counsels regarding Ash Wednesday. It is not just a mark which we bare publicly as a sign of our faith, but a deep and powerful sacramental which impresses upon us the finality of our mortality and calls us, with the grace of God, into a mode of humility and penance, blessed to bear fruit in our spiritual combat.

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