By Brother Mark McDonnell cfc
In the Catholic tradition, the season of Lent begins with the ritual of the blessed ashes ushering in forty days of prayer and penance. The ritual of the ashes uses the mantra “Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” Translated it reads “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust you shall return. The word “dust” and the word “ashes” are used interchangeably in this ritual.
Our loyalty to our current religious tradition has led us to be unaware of the very old cultural roots that underpin our current Lenten ritual, a ritual that has come to us as an inheritance from the past. When we dig below the surface a bit, we find that we are in touch with rituals and symbols that were sacred to our early human ancestors.
At the dawn of history, when the first humans awoke to the mystery of life, they gradually became aware of the profound and disturbing realities that beset them. One of these realities was the painful reality of death, and all of the unanswerable questions that it evoked. One of the earliest rituals that paleontologist have become aware of is the ritual burial of the dead. In some primitive traditions, as part of the burial ritual, the body of the deceased was smeared with clay to symbolize the end of life. In these early cultures, the anointing with dust/ashes was a sign of deep mourning and loss.
When religious ideas became more clearly defined, the old customs were naturally interpreted in the light of newer concepts and understandings. In the context of the Old Testament, these inherited traditions took on new and deeper meaning. In the Book of Genesis, humans were said to be made from the dust of the Earth, thus emphasizing their lowly state compared to the Divine Creator. Dust, occupying the lowest place and being something that was trodden under foot, came to be associated with the downtrodden and the afflicted of society.
As Old Testament theology developed, human misfortune came to be seen as Divine punishment for sin. Sickness, untimely death, crop failure, climate disasters, all of these misfortunes were understood as punishments for sins committed whether intentional or inadvertent, personal or social. Naturally enough, people suffering grievous misfortune at the hands of the Almighty looked for ways to emphasise their sorrow and repentance. To convince the Divine, and the community to which they belonged of the sincerity of their repentance, they clothed themselves “in sackcloth and ashes” for a specified period of time. Fasting became an intrinsic part of this ritual of repentance, although it must be said that fasting has been associated with the mystic tradition in a variety of religions. With the development of formal religious structures, the penitential rituals became more formal and centralized, involving pilgrimages to sacred places, and appropriate rituals for the occasion. With the evolution of a priestly class in many religions, it generally became the responsibility of the priestly class to oversee and direct these religious rituals and practices.