Ashes, Liturgical use of
ASHES, LITURGICAL USE OF
The ashes of burned objects (plants, animals, human bodies) and dust are commonly found in use among ancient peoples for religious, magical, and medical purposes; opinions regarding the import of these uses are diverse (cf. Cabrol and Schneider). The two principal meanings are that certain ashes have a sacred character and power and that dust and ashes signify mortality, mourning, and penance. In the OT one finds ashes (’ēper) and dust (’āpār) used only as signs of mortality and worthlessness, sorrow and repentance. One finds such practices as sprinkling them on the head, covering the body, sitting or lying in them, and eating them. A sacrificed cow's ashes mixed with water are used with a purificatory significance (Nm 19.9). Christian liturgical usage and symbolism seem clearly to have been taken from the Jewish tradition.
In the Roman Rite, the practice of the faithful receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday has been universal since the Synod of Benevento in 1091 (J. D. Mansi, Sacorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 20:739); however, this was known by the Anglo-Saxons a century earlier (Jungmann, 58–60). Originally ashes were used as signs of private penance; then they became a part of the official ritual for public penitents and were given to them only. Another important dimension of this action is that the ashes on the penitent were to arouse prayerful sympathy for him within his fellow Christians.
Historically, ashes were employed in the medieval period in the dedication of a church. The so-called Gregorian water used for sprinkling the interior of the church was a mixture of water, wine, salt, and ashes; the addition of salt and ashes was already found in the 8th-century Roman Ordinal 41, perhaps a biblicism from Nm 19.9. After the bishop entered the church, he wrote in ashes strewn on the floor with the Latin and Greek alphabets crossing each other diagonally to form the Greek letter "chi" (X for Christ). The symbolism seemed to indicate that Christ, the beginning and the end, has taken possession of the new church. This seems to be an Irish custom, which came through Roman Ordinal 41 (M. Andrieu, Les 'Ordines Romani' du haut moyen-âge, 4:319–320).
Formerly, in some places, ashes were imposed on Rogation days and used also for catechumens. In the Middle Ages one finds the custom of laying a dying person in ashes before he was anointed. Popular, nonliturgical uses also arose attributing special powers to the ashes of the Easter fire and to the dust of saints' remains (see Cabrol, 3043–44, 3039).
Bibliography: j. a. jungmann, Die lateinischen Bussriten in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Innsbruck 1932).
[e. j. johnson/eds.]