The Wikipedia entry I linked shows the biblical heritage of the ritual, citing Job, Jeremiah, Daniel, First Book of Maccabees, Numbers, and Jonah for citations of the use of ashes in the Old Testament, Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. It also cites Ezekiel chapter 9 for the marking of sinner’s foreheads for repentance, without any mention of ashes. But Wikipedia does not mention any citation from the Book of Judith.
I’ve recently been reading the Book of Judith as part of my working through the bible and low and behold I read chapter 4 shortly before Ash Wednesday. Let me set the context. The troops of King Nebuchadnezzar of the Assyrians have captured and slaughtered all of Israel’s neighbors and now have directed their attention to them. The Israelites are preparing for the invasion.
10They, along with their wives, and children, and domestic animals, every resident alien, hired worker, and purchased slave, girded themselves with sackcloth.
11And all the Israelite men, women, and children who lived in Jerusalem fell prostrate in front of the temple and sprinkled ashes on their heads, spreading out their sackcloth before the Lord.
12The altar, too, they draped in sackcloth; and with one accord they cried out fervently to the God of Israel not to allow their children to be seized, their wives to be taken captive, the cities of their inheritance to be ruined, or the sanctuary to be profaned and mocked for the nations to gloat over.
13The Lord heard their cry and saw their distress. The people continued fasting for many days throughout Judea and before the sanctuary of the Lord Almighty in Jerusalem.
14Also girded with sackcloth, Joakim, the high priest, and all the priests in attendance before the Lord, and those who ministered to the Lord offered the daily burnt offering, the votive offerings, and the voluntary offerings of the people.
15With ashes upon their turbans, they cried to the Lord with all their strength to look with favor on the whole house of Israel.
I was surprised when I read that passage. I didn’t recall anyone ever alluding to the Book of Judith for the history behind Ash Wednesday, but there it is. And what’s startling, is that in this passage they actually mention the sprinkling of ashes on foreheads (verse 11). Of all the other passages, I think only the First Book of Maccabees references ashes and forehead together. So the Book of Judith might actually be one of two of the clearest references to the Ash Wednesday ritual in the entire bible. They will have to update that Wikipedia entry. :)
I love Ash Wednesday and I hope I can get to a mass to receive ashes. It looks like I will be traveling out of town for work and not sure what my schedule will be like. I’m looking forward to Lent. It has replaced the overly commercialized Advent/Christmas season as my favorite time of year. I know we fast and pray and struggle during the Lenten season, but when you love God fasting, praying, and struggling is sweetness.
May God bless you all on this holy day.