Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
Fr. Scott Haynes
“Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies. Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.” We sing rhymes like this as young children, but we do not usually contemplate the meaning of the words. It may be a surprise to realize that this famous rhyme came out of Europe’s Black Plague. Because it was thought that that the Black Plague was airborne, the common wisdom was to place flowers up close to one’s mouth to perfume and filter the air which had become tinged by the smell of death.
During the Black Plague, doctors typically placed roses and other flowers in their pockets, and used this as “aroma therapy” to ward off contagion. As we revisit this little rhyme, we should take note of the horrific symptoms of the Black Plague. Thus the phrase, “Ring around the rosy,” referred to a plague symptom—the victim’s face would turn pale, while his cheeks would become dark and rosy. And the phrase, “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down,” is related to the black pallor that the patient’s skin had in his last days and to the cremation of plague victims.
Just as we are conversant with this children’s rhyme, we have often heard at funerals the saying, “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” which recalls the humble words that Abraham said to the Lord: “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). These same sentiments are heard from the mouth of Job: “I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). From these Old Testament passages, we can clearly see that the origin of our penitential practice of imposing ashes comes from Judaism. In the Old Covenant, a Jewish penitent customarily wore sackcloth (burlap), placed ashes on his head, and went barefoot on days of penance. Like Abraham and Job, we realize that eventually we will all fall down in an earthly death. Today’s imposition of ashes is a vivid reminder.
Although the Church exhorts us to practice penance, she also reminds us how Jesus warned against ostentatious public displays of penance (Matthew 6:16-18). We are not to be hypocrites. In our acts of kindness, praying, and fasting we are to be humble, even hidden. God does not call us to gloat or brag about our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). No one likes a boastful man, especially God: “I hate arrogance, and pride, and every wicked way, and a mouth with a double tongue” (Proverbs 8:13).
To avoid this pitfall, we must practice prudence. A good example of this comes from Sir Winston Churchill. A stranger was once asked Churchill, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” Churchill replied, “It’s quite flattering. But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
In visiting the confessional, we must ask ourselves if we are superficial about what we confess. It is easy for us to confess the sin that is obvious—those sins that simmer near the top of our minds and are often present to us. Other sins do not lie at the surface level. Although “hidden sins” are hard to discern, we pray with the Psalmist: “Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord” (Psalm 19:12). The answer comes with a deep examination of conscience—we want to hold our very soul open to God.
On Ash Wednesday, it seems that the Church could take our nursery rhyme for its motto: “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down,” for it reminds us of our mortality and our human tendency to fall down in sin. Mindful of our parting from this life and the account we must render before the Lord, St. Hildegard observed that the human soul is like “a feather on the breath of God.”
Because the life of each man is precious, even fragile, we should confidently place our lives in his hands and rest secure in God’s embrace. As we heighten our trust in his divine mercy, we are enlivened to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy with zealous, generous and charitable hearts—hearts formed after his Sacred Heart.
As the priest this Ash Wednesday traces sign of the cross on your forehead at the imposition of ashes saying, “Remember man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” may you be led with the light of God’s redeeming love through Jesus Christ our Savior, who prepares us, by prayer and penance, for the joys of his day of resurrection.