Politics & Policy

Ashes to Ashes

The beginning of 40 days and 40 nights of Lent.

The alarming preponderance of dirty foreheads one will see today can only mean one thing: It’s Ash Wednesday. In light of the start of the Lenten season, National Review Online contacted a few of our spiritual advisers to explain why Lent is important, and what lessons it can teach us.


The symbolism of bodily marking can be found throughout the Bible. Cain receives a mark to warn others not to lay hands on this first murderer (Gen. 4:15). Slaves are marked as a badge of ownership (Exod. 21:6). In the book of Ezekiel, a heavenly messenger is commanded to place a mark on the foreheads of the righteous (Ezek. 9:4). The followers of Antichrist receive a mark of their own, on their foreheads and hands (Rev. 14:9). The forehead ashes received by Christians at the beginning of Lent are an ancient symbol of penance and sorrow. They might also be usefully thought of as a kind of brand or marking, signifying that even in an age that worships above all things the “freedom to choose,” the Christian is not his own. He is a servant, bought and paid for by a Master to whom he will answer for how he has used whatever freedom he has in this world.

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.


I try to remember that the ashes I wear are a sign to the world that I have sinned, and am in need of redemption. It is common enough for Christians to adopt holier-than-thou piety, and certainly the Ash Wednesday tradition could be abused as some type of virtuous merit-badge of church attendance and membership. Practically speaking, the potential for such abuse accompanies almost any devotional practice. Nevertheless, we must not be cowed by such possibilities, or by worldly misunderstandings. In the end, if we strive toward sincerity, the ashes are an acknowledgment before God and others that we have fallen, and that we are sorrowful and penitent.

Frank Hanna is the author of What Your Money Means (and How to Use It Well).


At one of my former newspaper jobs, Fat Tuesday was a huge celebration. And yet when some of us showed up the next day with ashy smudges on our foreheads, we’d politely be notified we had dirt on our faces.

Referred to throughout Scripture as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality, ashes are imposed on the head as a powerful reminder that we are sinners who will die. They’re made in the sign of the cross to direct us to Jesus Christ as the way to forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in heaven.

They shouldn’t be worn to be showy or boastful but to serve as witness. And the practice is meaningless — hypocritical, even — unless there is a corresponding repentance and change of behavior.

No one likes to think of his or her sinfulness or mortality — we all wish Fat Tuesday were more meaningful than Ash Wednesday.

It’s important that we not confuse the important spiritual disciplines of Lent with the true purpose of Lent: to fix our eyes on Christ and to ponder the purpose, reasons and necessity of our Lord’s suffering and death to earn our salvation.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes at GetReligion.org.



The community’s sacristan was going around the convent collecting the palms from last year to be burned and sifted into ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday. These will be placed on our foreheads in the form of the cross with these or similar words, “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” These are sobering words, but none more true could be spoken to convey the one infallible truth that we will one day die. In an age where the body is materially glorified and the prevailing philosophy gives permission to do whatever we wish with our bodies, the thought that we are created by God and will continue forever to belong to God might be a worthy, though somewhat shocking, reminder that ashes are the results of a life that has ended. We, however, were created for better . . . our blessed ashes point us to the ‘death to self’ (through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) that will enliven us, even now, in preparation for our Eternity.


– Mother Mary Assumpta Long, O.P., is the Prioress General and one of four founding members of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.



At the heart of Christianity are sinners. It is a matter of simple self-knowledge that we have done things we know we ought not to have done, and have not done the things we know we should have done. The only honest thing to do is to repent. And try to do better.

Lent feels like the stern winds of March, testing the barren branches, snapping off the dead ones, chilling the live ones to the inner juices of spring, calling them to awaken.

The Good News is that God is not only the immense power of the hurricane and the swollen turbulent rolling seas. He is not only the Source of all good, attracting all things by His Beauty, as Plato conceived of Him (Aristotle, too).

The Good News is that He invites poor humans, alone of all creatures, to walk with Him as friends — if we choose. No liberty, no real friendship.

To accept being a friend of the Almighty Who rules the seas and the explosions of stars, the coming to be and the dissolution of vast galaxies — there is a destiny difficult to believe. It is obviously one of which we are in no way worthy. It is fear-causing, stunning us into silence.

For this reason, too, all around this hurtling Earth, Christians today wear ashes on our foreheads, in repentance for our many sins and in wonderment.

The able ones fast lightly and abstain from eating meat, to break from normal routines, as if to feel the cutting winds of this season calling the dead greens back toward life.


– Michael Novak’s latest book is No One Sees God. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.


Lent is a time to examine the conscience: Am I letting God make me what he wants me to be? According to Plato, Socrates said that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He knew the words in the pronaos, or forecourt, of the temple at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Self-knowledge consists in matching our behavior up against the virtues. By so doing we “repent,” or “return” to the plan God has had for us since our conception. “Let us search our ways, and seek, and return to the Lord.” (Lam. 3:40). St. Paul urges an examination of conscience before receiving the Blessed Sacrament (1 Cor. 11:28-31). As physical light refracts into seven colors, so the Light of Christ refracts into seven virtues: faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. But the Prince of Darkness also refracts into seven dark anti-virtues, or deadly sins: pride, anger, lust, avarice, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

A good self-examination requires listening to the counsel of God through his Church and acting on it to correct one’s ways. Recently, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was reproved by Pope Benedict XVI at a brief audience to which he would not admit press or photographers, aware that the occasion could be exploited for political purposes, which it was. The Pope pointedly urged that public figures examine their consciences. He reminded the Speaker, who boasts that she is a practicing Catholic, that life must be protected “from conception until natural death.” On previous occasions the Speaker has woefully misrepresented Christ’s teaching, actually claiming an idiosyncratic knowledge of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is well known that Pope Benedict XVI is more familiar with these sources than the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rather than examine her conscience, the Speaker later issued a press statement of her own, censoring the Pope’s remarks and changing the subject to “poverty, hunger, and global warming.” A lawyer named Douglas Kmiec, whose tartuffish political counsel has cast him in the role of Richard Rich manipulating the testimony of St. Thomas More, called the Pope’s admonition “intrusive.”

A few days later, our new Secretary of State raised the hopes of many that on her visit to China, as a matter of conscience, she would mention the more than half-million prisoners in slave labor camps, forcible organ harvesting, support of genocide in Darfur, and the countless Chinese Christians being martyred for their faith. Instead, she said that “human rights . . . can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” This went beyond the insouciance of Eleanor Roosevelt, who, as Solzhenitsyn records in The First Circle, praised Stalin’s “wonderful” prison camps.

We should not examine the consciences of others, but, for life to be worth living, we should at least hope that others have consciences.

Fr. George W. Rutler is a Catholic priest in New York.


Much to everyone’s surprise, Ash Wednesday is, yearly, a most attended Catholic devotion. Perhaps we should not make a metaphysical issue of this phenomenon. If we were in Rio, on the day after Mardi Gras, we might have other reasons. But here in the land of the free and home of the brave, where sin abounds, grace abounds more abundantly. We are, I suspect, a land filled with bad consciences that have no place to go. Sin needs both definition and acknowledgment. But if neither occurs, it remains, with its effects, on our souls and those of our neighbors. The classical authors teach us to look to our own wills when things go wrong. The cross of ashes — “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return” — is placed on the forehead of laity and on the crown of the monk’s head. Ash Wednesday does not point to itself. But it does point, first to the man who needs to repent, then to the redemption in which alone repentance has its meaning in forgiveness.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government at Georgetown University.

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