Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

It is not easy to arrive at the fundamental conception of the liturgical use of ashes. No doubt our Christian ritual has been borrowed from the practice of the Jews, a practice retained in certain details of synagogue ceremonial to this day, but the Jewish custom itself needs explanation. A number of passages in the Old Testament connect ashes ( efer ) with mourning, and we are told that the mourner sat or rolled himself in, sprinkled his head or mingled his food with, "ashes", but it is not clear whether in these passages we ought not rather to translate efer as dust. The same phrases are used with the word afar which certainly means dust. It may be that the dust was originally taken from the grave, in token that the living felt himself one with the dead, or it may be that humiliation and the neglect of personal cleanliness constituted the dominant idea ; for a similar manifestation of grief was undoubtedly familiar among Aryan peoples, e.g. in Homer (Iliad, XVIII, 23). It seems less probable that the cleansing properties of ashes (though this also has been proposed) are taken as significant of moral purification. The chief foundation for this last suggestion is the Rite of the Red Heifer ( Numbers 19:17 ) in which the ashes of the victim when mixed with water had the ceremonial efficacy of purifying the unclean (cf. Hebrews 9:13 ). Be this as it may,

Christianity at an early date undoubtedly adopted the use of ashes as symbolical f penance. Thus Tertian prescribes that the penitent must "live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes" (De Pœnitentiâ, x); and many similar passages might be quoted from St. Cyprian and other early Fathers. Eusebius in his account of theapostasy and reconciliation of Natalis describes him as coming to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and sprinkled over with ashes ( spodon katapasamenon , Hist. Eccles., V, 28). This was the normal penitential garb, and n the expulsion of those sentenced to do public penance, as given in early pontificals, the sprinkling of their heads with ashes always plays a prominent part. Indeed the rite is retained in the Pontificale Romanum to this day. With this garb of penance we must undoubtedly connect the custom, so frequent n the early Middle Ages, of laying a dying man on the ground upon sackcloth sprinkled with ashes when about to breathe his last. Early rituals direct the priest to cast holy water upon him, saying, "Remember that thou are dust and unto dust the shall return." After which he asked: "Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord, in the day of judgment?" And the dying man answered: "I am content.: Ashes are also liturgically used n the rite of thededication of a church, first upon which all the alphabet is written in Greek and Latin letters, and secondly to mix with oil and wine in the water which is specially blessed for the consecration of the altars. This use of ashes is probably older than the eighth century.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:7-16
7 On each one of us God's favour has been bestowed in ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
1 [Song of Ascents Of David] I rejoiced that they ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:1-9
1 It was just about this time that some people ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 25th, 2014 Image

St. Daria
October 25: There is very little known about them. Chrysanthus was an ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter