(AsiaNews) - The ashes on the faithful's heads are an "invitation to penance,
humility, and an awareness of our mortal state. We are not to despair, but to
welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable nearness of God who opens
the way to Resurrection, to paradise regained, beyond death." This is what Pope
Benedict XVI said during the Mass celebrated in the ancient Roman Basilica of St
Sabina during which ashes were blessed and imposed.
tradition, the pope arrived in St Sabina in a penitential procession from the
nearby Church of St Anselm on the Aventine Hill. The ashes were at the centre
of the Holy Father's homily.
are, he said, "a material sign, a natural element that, in the Liturgy, becomes
a sacred symbol, so important on this day that marks the start of our Lenten
journey. In ancient times, in the Jewish culture, it was common to sprinkle
one's head with ashes as a sign of penance, and to dress in sackcloth and rags.
For us Christians, there is this one moment which has important symbolic and
are the material sign that brings the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most
important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which
become true sacramental elements through which we communicate the Grace of
Christ who comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but they are
linked with prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. Before the
ashes are placed on our heads, they are blessed according to two possible
formulae: in the first they are called "austere symbols", in the second, we
invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of
Genesis which can also accompany the imposition of the ashes: Remember, 'For
you are dust, and to dust you shall return' (Gen, 3:19)."
reflect for a moment on this passage of Genesis. It concludes with a judgement made
by God after original sin. God curses the serpent who caused man and woman to
commit sin. Then He punishes the woman saying she will suffer the pains of
giving birth. Then He punishes the man, saying he will suffer the fatigue of
labour and He curses the soil saying, 'Cursed is the
ground because of you!'
(Gen, 3:17) and your sin.' The man and woman are not cursed directly as
the serpent is, but because of Adam's sin.
more, the pope noted, "the cursing of the soil had a "medicinal", or healing,
function: meaning that God's intention is always good and more profound, even
than His own curse. The curse does not come from God but from sin. God cannot
avoid inflicting the curse because he respects human freedom and its
consequences even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and
within the curse, there is a good intention that comes from God. When He says,
"Dust you are and unto dust you shall return", He intends inflicting a just
punishment, but also announcing the way to salvation. This will pass through
the Earth, through that same dust, that same flesh which will be assumed by the
is context in which the words of Genesis are reflected in the Ash Wednesday
liturgy: as an invitation to penance, humility, and an awareness of our mortal
state. We are not to despair, but to welcome in this mortal state of ours the
unthinkable nearness of God who opens the way to Resurrection, to paradise
regained, beyond death."