For most of my life, this time of year, I’d always wondered about the crosses I’d see on the foreheads of some people. When I was younger, it was a mystery to me. I had often thought that they were part of some doomsday cult, walking around with ash crosses on their heads showing that we were all going to die one day.
I had to know: Why are they walking around with ashes on their heads? What is the purpose?
From my perspective, from my past, I know of stories in the Tanakh (Jewish “Old Testament”) where individuals would don sackcloth and pour ashes on their heads. Could this be the same thing? I had to find out.
To find answers, I set out to meet with two different people. First, Father Jesus Ma Mena Isla, OAR. Fr. Isla is the pastor of Guardian Angel Catholic Church; the other person pastor is Rev. Brian R. Bestian. Rev. Bestian is the pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the forty days that lead to Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – one of the major periods on the Christian calendar.
In the Old Testament, both sackcloth and ashes were used as a symbol of mourning, or repentance. All throughout the Old Testament, you will see someone putting on sackcloth and either sitting in ashes or pouring ashes over their head.
You have David, with sackcloth and ashes when he mourned the death of Abner (2 Samuel 3:31). Jacob showed his grief by wearing sackcloth, and I must assume he used ashes as well when he thought his son, Joseph, had been killed (Genesis 37:34). Or even times of national disaster or repentance from sin you can find sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1).
Could people, who are having ashes placed on their forehead be undergoing the act of repentance? According to Father Isla and Pastor Bestian, the answer is a resounding yes.
“It’s a time of penance,” says Father Isla, speaking of Lent.
“Lent is a period that prepares us to live the Christian Passover,” continues Father Isla.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of forty days of penance. A time of reflection, a time of coming to a greater understanding of what Easter is and the purpose it serves for the Christian community.
“Lent is a help to prepare ourselves to live what is going to be our life in heaven,” says Fr. Isla. “Our life in heaven will be with the Lord, with God.”
“We have temptation, we have struggles,” says Maria De La Cruz of our lives. “Something will want to draw you away from God from what He is wanting of you, for you.”
Ms. De La Cruz was praying; in preparation for Lent and the sacrifices, she is going to make.
“The Ash Wednesday is a token,” says Ms. De La Cruz. “I’m not a priest or nun. I said this so you understand I may be wrong. But it is a token of what I give to God those days, what I separate from so He can add more.”
And Fr. Isla talks of that as well. Of why things are given up on Ash Wednesday, and until Easter.
During Lent, and beginning with Ash Wednesday, people abstain from different foods or activities. As Fr. Isla says, they fast. “Fasting is not just for us today, not to eat,” says Fr. Isla.
“Fasting can be not to see a lot of TV. Not to use the smartphone so much, or Facebook.”
So, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of all of this. It’s the start of a brief season of self-mortification. It begins a brief period of getting yourself and your appetites, your wants under control so that you can allow G-d to do what He wants in your life.
Still, I wanted to know what the ashes represented. Why would someone place ashes on their forehead and go about their daily lives?
“The cross,” says Rev. Bestian “to remind us of the redemption we have in Jesus Christ.”
Even using ashes has a significance.
“We also speak the words, ‘dust you are and to dust you shall return.’” Rev. Bestian says. “It reminds us of our mortality. From the dust G-d brought Adam, and not because sin has entered into the world, our bodies will eventually return back to the dust.” The ashes are a visible reminder of what our ultimate state is. No one is going to live forever. Given enough time we all will die and eventually become like dust.
“The cross of ashes, for me,” says Olga Zayes, “reminds me for the day that I will see G-d one day for judgment. It starts for me the habit of being more living for G-d.”
This Wednesday, a large segment of El Paso’s Christian community will be receiving the imposition of ashes. They have each prayed and begun their journey of penance, leading to forgiveness and the celebration of Easter.
I do invite you to watch the short video of Father Isla of Guardian Angel Church, and Rev. Bestian of Ascension Lutheran Church. (Fr. Isla shares the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent in both Spanish and English).