Rome - 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.
Following 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.
They 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 spiritual relevance."
"Ashes 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)."
"Let us 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.
What is 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 Word Incarnate."
"This 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."