For Roman Catholics, today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. In 43 more days, it will be Easter. When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, this was an exciting time: though it was still cold and snowy, springtime was coming soon. For others, Ash Wednesday is the day after Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi gras. The partying is over, time to get to the serious business of repenting and fasting.
Like most Christian holidays, Ash Wednesday isn’t a biblical holiday in quite the same way as, for example, Passover. To the best of my recollection, nothing particularly interesting happened to Jesus 43 days before his resurrection. The number forty was considered special, and perhaps holy, in Judaism and recurs in many stories from Noah’s flood, to Moses’ asking of repentance after the golden calf incident, and even to the amount of time Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert.
But while the holiday itself isn’t biblical, the key tradition of the holiday is: Catholics will be given ashes on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday services. This sign of mourning and repentance may be one of the oldest (and oddest) artifact of early Jewish culture that survives in modern Christianity.
In the bible, ashes have a special importance and stories generally show them used for two reasons: for mourning and repentance, both of which have some symbolism during Ash Wednesday.
One of these examples comes in the Book of Daniel:
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
Daniel, considered a prophet by Christians, prayed to God and understood that Jews would be punished for seventy years for their sins. This was the destruction of the first temple and the Babylonian captivity. Daniel wore sackcloth (essentially rags) and ashes to show his supplication and submission to God. The Book of Daniel doesn’t say he had the ashes on his head, but he had them.
There are also a few stories where ashes and sackcloth are depicted as a sign of mourning. The idea of ashes for mourning was so common that Isaiah even made a joke about it:
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
In the interests of brevity, as if I’ve ever managed that, I’ll briefly summarize two stories that show ashes for mourning: the stories of Amnon & Tamar and Esther.
The Amnon and Tamar starts, as so many stories in the bible seem to, with a little bit of incest:
And it came to pass after this, that Absalom the son of David had a fair sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. And Amnon was so vexed, that he fell sick for his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin; and Amnon thought it hard for him to do anything to her.
2 Samuel 13:1-2
Amnon was one of David’s sons and had fallen in love, or at least lust, with his half-sister Tamar and schemed with his cousin Jonadab to find a way to get into Tamar’s bed. They came up with a plan: Amnon would feign sickness and request that Tamar be made his nurse. This would give him time to profess his incestuous live. The king agreed.
So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house; and he was laid down. And she took flour, and kneaded it, and made cakes in his sight, and did bake the cakes. And she took a pan, and poured them out before him; but he refused to eat. And Amnon said, Have out all men from me. And they went out every man from him. And Amnon said unto Tamar, Bring the meat into the chamber, that I may eat of thine hand. And Tamar took the cakes which she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. And when she had brought them unto him to eat, he took hold of her, and said unto her, Come lie with me, my sister.
2 Samuel 13:8-11
Did I say love? No, Amnon had only one thing on his mind: having sex with his virgin sister. And while Tamar refused his advances, she was ultimately powerless to escape and Amnon raped her. The deed done, his virgin sister no longer a virgin, he discovered that he didn’t want her after all.
Then Amnon hated her exceedingly; so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her. And Amnon said unto her, Arise, be gone. […] Then he called his servant that ministered unto him, and said, Put now this woman out from me, and bolt the door after her.
2 Samuel 13:15,17
I don’t think it’s possible to imagine Tamar’s grief. Not only was she raped by a man she trusted, her own half-brother, he then wouldn’t do what in their backwards worldview would have been the honorable thing and marry her. So what’s a girl to do when she is completely consumed by grief and rage? Ashes.
And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying.
2 Samuel 13:19
This isn’t a fun story. In the end, Amnon is killed by Tamar’s brother. Tamar doesn’t live happily ever after, but at least she is allowed to stay in her brother’s house.
A more well-known occasion where ashes are used in morning and supplication comes in the book of Esther. This story is set, like Daniel, during the Jewish exile after the destruction of the temple. King Ahasuerus of Persia, modern Iran, cast out his wife for dishonoring him and summoned all the virgins of his kingdoms to his palace. In that way, he was a bit like the prince from Snow White, but more shallow and evil.
Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite; Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter: for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was fair and beautiful; whom Mordecai, when her father and mother were dead, took for his own daughter. So it came to pass, when the king’s commandment and his decree was heard, and when many maidens were gathered together unto Shushan the palace, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was brought also unto the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women.
One of these fine young woman brought to his palace was Esther, the adopted-but-biologically-related daughter of Mordecai, and if you’ve read Genesis you know that there is nothing less appealing to royalty (think Pharoah and Abimelech) than a Jewish wife. (I happen to agree!) But Esther didn’t reveal that she was a Jew.
And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Some time later, Haman was advanced as the head prince (some translations say prime minister or a similar modern title) and the king commanded that everyone should bow before Haman. Mordecai, mindful of the fact that God does not take worshipping of idols lightly, declines to show him this honor which infuriates the new prince.
And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence. Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment? Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew. And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath.
Like all genocidal maniacs, when Haman got mad at one Jew, he got mad at them all. Working with the king, he arranged for a special day when all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed.
And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people [ Jews ] scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.
Oh, but I’m not supposed to be retelling the Book of Esther, I’m supposed to be talking about ashes. And there are ashes in this story. When Mordecai found out that he and all his kinsmen would be put to death, he put on sackcloth with ashes:
When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; And came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Everyone familiar with Purim knows this story has a happy ending: Esther and Mordecai save the Jews, Haman is put to death, and my wife bakes Hamentashen by the dozens to give to all of our friends.
Curiously though Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition, the New Testament doesn’t have many references to wearing ashes:
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
Luke 10:13 (and almost repeated verbatim in Matthew 11)
In Luke, we have repentance and ashes, but you sit in them and not wear them. Go figure.
Up next: I have no idea. I hope to be back on track soon, but real life keeps intervening.