Its significance, explained in the Golden Legend of James of Voragine, as Englished by William Caxton.
On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men's heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God's command: In toil thou shalt live, and in sweat thou shalt eat thy loaf on earth, until thou return again to the same earth from which thou earnest, because thou art dust, and shalt to dust return.
This is not said of men's souls, but of men's bodies that moulder to dust, and afterwards shall at doomsday, through our Lord's might, all arise from the earth, that were ever alive, like as all trees are always quickened in the Lenten time, which before had been deadened by the winter's chill.
We read in the books, both in the Old Law and in the New, that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes, and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads, to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during our Lenten fast.
There was a certain foolish man with bishop Aelfstan in Wiltshire, in his household: this man would not go to the ashes on the Wednesday, as other men did, who attended at Mass; then his companions begged that he would go to the Mass-priest, and receive the sacred mysteries which they had received. He said, I will not. They still prayed him. He said that he would not, and spake strangely in his talk, and said that he would use his wife at the forbidden time. Then they left him so. It befell that the heretic was riding in that week about some errand, when hounds attacked him very fiercely, and he defended himself until his spear-shaft stood up before him, and the horse carried him forward so that the spear went right through him, and he fell dying. He was then buried, and there lay upon him many loads of earth within seven nights, because he had refused those few ashes.
In that same week came a certain buffoon to the bishop's household, who heeded no Lenten fast, but went to the kitchen, while the bishop was saying Mass, and began to eat; then fell he, at the first morsel, backward in a swoon, and spat blood, but his life, nevertheless, was with difficulty preserved.
Likewise Athelwold, the holy bishop, who now worketh miracles through God, often told us, that he knew a man with bishop Aelfheah, who would drink in Lent whenever it pleased him. Then one day he prayed the bishop Aelfheah to bless his cup; he would not, and the fool drank without blessing, and went out. They were baiting a boar by chance outside, and the boar ran against him and thrust him so that he gave up his life; and so paid for the untimely draught.
Every man who eateth or drinketh untimely in the holy Lent, or on appointed fast-days, let him know in sooth that his soul shall sorely abye it, though the body may here live sound.
I, in the name of Father and Son and the Holy Ghost, I, abbot Drzhiha, wrote this about the plot of land which was given by Zvonimir, the Croatian King, in his days to St. Lucy. And the witnesses: Desimir, Prefect of Krbava, Martin in Lika; Pribinezha, clerk in Vinodol; Jacob on the island. If anyone deny it, let him be cursed by 12 Apostles and 4 Evangelists and St. Lucy. Let anyone who lives here pray God for them. I, abbot Dobrovit, built this church with my nine brethren at the time of Prince Kosmat who ruled the whole Country. In those days Mikula was in Otochac with St. Lucy together.
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