The significance of ashes on the head as a sign of repentance is rooted in the Old Testament, but there are interesting observations to be drawn from the New Testament on ashes. To see the significance we have to ask what ashes are. Ashes are the residue from fire burning fuel.
The fire of the Holy Spirit is a purifying fire, and the fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit consumes is every waste and useless aspect of our lives. The imagery is powerfully expressed in St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians in chapter 3. He’s said that he has built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and we are to build lives with worthy materials:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
In other words, the cheap and worthless building materials will go up in flames and be reduced to ash which will be blown away on the wind. The worthy materials will be purified by fire. The fire is not only the Holy Spirit, but also the purifying fires of purgation and purification.
The ashes we receive therefore are symbolic of all the useless sins and frivolities, all the selfishness and vanity in our lives. It’s got to be burned up and turned to ash.
Here’s a reminder from T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
The ashes are also, therefore a reminder of the refining fires of purgatory, and a further reminder that the purification process will happen. If we are baptized this is our destiny. To have the trash burned up and the worthy materials of our life purified by fire–this is what must happen, if not in this life, then in the next, and the church teaches us that it is easier in this life than in the next.
Lent is the serious time when we do this serious business and co-operate with God to get the job done.
So get busy and have a great and fruitful Lent!