Every year on the Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is observed. Evidence of dies cinerum (day of ashes), as it is named in the Roman Missal, is found in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary dating as far back as the eighth century. On this day, according to ancient custom, people approach the altar before mass, the priest dips his hand into ashes he had previously blessed and marks every person's forehead. He marks them with the sign of the cross proclaiming while he signs their foreheads, "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return." This phrase is rooted in God's sentence cast on Adam when Adam disobeyed him and ate the forbidden fruit: "By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return." (Gn 3:19). The wearing of ashes in the sign of a cross is a sign of mortality and sorrow for sin.
The ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ceremony are made by burning the remains of palm fronds that had been blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year. When the ashes are blessed, four ancient prayers are used. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and incensed as they are blessed. The celebrant of the mass receives the ashes himself from another priest and then blesses each member of the congregation. Years ago, a penitential procession followed the distribution of the ashes, but today this is no longer practiced.
It is believed the custom of distributing ashes imitates a practice observed in the case of public penitents. The early Catholic Church put this custom to devotional usage as a symbol of penance. Around the year 1000, the Anglo-Saxon homilist Aelfric once said "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 at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
Jesus retreated into the desert and fasted for forty days and forty nights in order to prepare for his ministry. He spent this time to contemplate and reflect on His Father's plan for him. When we as Christians observe Lent together, its like joining Jesus on His retreat. Just as in ancient times when people used to mark themselves by placing ashes on their foreheads as a way to show they were fasting, praying, remorseful or even to show repentance, we continue this tradition today. It is a timeless, appropriate reminder that it is a period to prepare us in our own personal way just as Jesus did when he sought solitude so long ago. Our marking with ashes signals the beginning of our preparation to receive the Lord at Easter, forty days hence.
There are several ways that we can prepare ourselves during the Lenten season. One way is by fasting, which is a partial or total abstention from food. Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting. By fasting, we observe a disciplined diet in order to focus more on the Lord. Other ways we can prepare ourselves are by conducting acts of charity or making a personal sacrifice.
Ash Wednesday is a day of penitence and a time for reflecting on the past year. It is a day to review our actions of the past year and how we treated others. The past year may have been very active, exciting, or even frightening or stressful. It is the perfect day of the year to think about what is most important in our lives, God. He was present in everything we experienced during the year. Through all of our accomplishments and pitfalls, God was with us through it all. Ash Wednesday is a day to focus on how He helped us through the activity, excitement, fear or stress.
When we attend mass on Ash Wednesday, we begin a commitment to spend more time praying and soul-searching, as did Jesus when he went on his journey for forty days. We join Jesus on his journey through contemplation. The mark of the ashes shows that we are departing on this journey. There are many things to look for on our journey. Before we begin, it is best to first critique our own lives. Through our self-critiques, we can set goals for ourselves that we desire to obtain during the coming year. This is somewhat similar to New Year's Resolutions however, the difference is that the goals we set for ourselves beginning on Ash Wednesday should be purely spiritual ones.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is an opportunity to begin a renewal for ourselves as we prepare to joyfully celebrate the Lord's resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is a time when we look inside ourselves to recognize our faults and pray for forgiveness of our sins. It is a time for personal preparation and reflection when we open our hearts to Gods' plan for us. As Psalm 122:1 says, "I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord." Beginning this Ash Wednesday, let us prepare ourselves before we enter the house of the Lord.
back to top | home