Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Biblical interpretation of the ashes and cross on the forehead from Genesis to Apocalypse

Today is Ash Wednesday. On this day the priest mixes with water the ashes from the burnt palms blessed last year, and says the following prayer:
O God, who desire not the death of sinners, but their conversion, mercifully hear our prayers and in your kindness be pleased to bless + these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, gain pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. (Liturgies)
There is another form, but the one quoted appears older.  It's corresponding prayer said by the priest as he traces the sign of the cross on our foreheads has the familiar form:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Liturgies)
We notice that there are two important elements in the sign: (1) the ashes on the forehead and (2) the cross on the forehead.   Let's discuss these one by one.

1. Ashes on the Forehead

The ashes remind us of dust.  In the Book of Genesis, we read that God created us out of dust:
Then the LORD God formed the man* out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.d (Gen 2:7)
But because of man's disobedience, God removed the preternatural gift of immortality from man, and man became subject to the Law of Entropy: man shall soon die and its tissues break down into its component molecules and become part of soil. As God told Adam:
By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.i (Gen 3:19)
 In the Book of Genesis we also read the story of Abraham on how he pleaded with God on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
Abraham spoke up again: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am only dust and ashes!h 28 What if there are five less than fifty righteous people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?” I will not destroy it, he answered, if I find forty-five there....But he persisted: “Please, do not let my Lord be angry if I speak up this last time. What if ten are found there?” For the sake of the ten, he replied, I will not destroy it.i 33 The LORD departed as soon as he had finished speaking with Abraham, and Abraham returned home. (Gen 18:26-33)
So we notice that to treat oneself as dust and ashes before God is a sign of humility and repentance--a recognition that without God, we are nothing but dust and ashes, as we recall in the story of Adam and Eve. Since the forehead is closest to the brain, then putting ashes on the forehead means that we must remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

What happened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who did not repent? God reduced the cities into dust and ashes:
And the LORD rained down sulfur upon Sodom and Gomorrah, fire from the LORD out of heaven.h 25 He overthrew* those cities and the whole Plain, together with the inhabitants of the cities and the produce of the soil.i (Gen 19:24-25)
What happened to the people of Nineveh who repented? God spared the city because their king proclaimed a fast and sat in ashes:
Jonah began his journey through the city, and when he had gone only a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” 5 the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small,* put on sackcloth.a 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh:* “By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. 8 Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands. 9 * Who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish.”b 10 When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out. (Jon 3:4-10)
It is interesting to note that ISIS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah turned it into a heap of dust. And then they drove the Christians into exodus out of Iraq. If will go as ISIS envisioned, Babylon the Great shall rise once again as an Islamic State and persecute the Jews in Israel and the Christians of Rome.  And then the End will come.

2. Cross on the Forehead

The cross on the forehead is mentioned at least thrice in the Bible.

In the book of Job, we read about Job's signature, which he represented by a cross sign on his head like a diadem or crown, while Job laments his misfortunes and asks God for an explanation for his suffering:
Oh, that I had one to hear my case: here is my signature:* let the Almighty answer me! Let my accuser write out his indictment!i 36 Surely, I should wear it on my shoulder* or put it on me like a diadem; 37 Of all my steps I should give him an account; like a prince* I should present myself before him. (Jb 31:35-37)
In the book of Ezekiel, we read about the Tau or X that God asked his angelic scribe to mark the people who lament over the abominations in the city, in order to spare them from being slaughtered during the judgment of Jerusalem:
The LORD said to him:* Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it. 5 To the others he said in my hearing: Pass through the city after him and strike! Do not let your eyes spare; do not take pity. 6 Old and young, male and female, women and children—wipe them out! But do not touch anyone marked with the X. Begin at my sanctuary. So they began with the elders who were in front of the temple.d 7 Defile the temple, he said to them, fill its courts with the slain. Then go out and strike in the city. (Ez 9:3-7)
Finally, in the book of Revelation, we read about the mark on the forehead of those who are of the Beast and those of Christ:
Then I looked and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion,* and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.a (Rev 14:1
I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image nor had accepted its mark* on their foreheads or hands. (Rev 20:4
The sign of Christ is the sign of the cross, so that the ashes on our forehead is the sign of Christ, a shorthand for the Trinitarian Name: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The sign of the cross on our foreheads already mark as targets for the Islamic State, in the same way as ISIS marked the houses of Christians with the sign of "nun" for the Nazarene. The aim of ISIS is  not religious dialogue but the ultimate destruction of Rome, the seat of Catholic Christianity:
If al-Qaeda wanted to revive slavery, it never said so. And why would it? Silence on slavery probably reflected strategic thinking, with public sympathies in mind: when the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked. Nonetheless, the caliphate has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.” (Graeme Wood, Atlantic)
But Christ reminds us:
If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.n 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.o 20 Remember the word I spoke to you,* ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.p (Jn 15:18-20)
We must be prepared for suffering and martyrdom, as the the example of the 21 Egyptian martyrs beheaded by ISIS shows us, because Christ also suffered and died on the cross.  But Christ assures us:
In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world. (Jn 16:33)
C. Summary and Conclusions

The ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as God told Adam.  To treat ourselves as dust and ashes before the Lord as Abraham did is a sign of humility and repentance--a recognition that without God, we won't have life. Sodom and Gomorrah rejected God by following the sin of Sodomy, and God destroyed the cities with fire and turned these into dust and ashes.  We may also end up in the same way if we follow the present homosexual agenda that legitimizes the homosexual lifestyle and imposes same-sex marriage on the world.  May the city of Nineveh provide us an example of repentance.  As their king wore sack cloth and sat in ashes, may the ashes on our foreheads remind us to repent of our sins in the Sacrament of Confession in order to prepare for the Lenten Season.

The crosses on our foreheads, on the other hand, reminds us of Job's signature on his forehead which he wore as a sign of his complaint before God on why a just man like him have to undergo suffering--a question which God did not answer directly, except to show his Wisdom--a question which Christ also did not answer directly, except to suffer like Job in Calvary. The sign of the cross is the sign of salvation from the wrath of God in the vision of Ezekiel, for in this sign is the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The sign of the cross is the mark of Christians and by this sign we shall conquer the world, not by the force of arms such as those of ISIS, but by the force of weakness and martyrdom.  As St. Paul said:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.k...For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,n 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,o 24 but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25)
Ash Wednesday (Basic)
Ash Wednesday (Basic)
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Entropy and the Second Law: Interpretation and Misss-Interpretations
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Photo: Iraq (Babylonia). Nineveh,Tomb of Jonah
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History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium
History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium