Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.
Why we receive the ashes
Following the example of the Nine vites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told
“Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.
Ash Wednesday is the first day in the Christian season of Lent. It begins about 40 days before Easter. The 40 days represents Jesus’ time in the desert before the start of his public ministry. It also represents the 40 years that the Hebrews spent in the desert searching for the Promised Land. Ashes have been used for thousands of years as a sign of repentance. We don’t wear ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge that we sin and are in need of repentance and renewal. By putting ashes on our forehead, we are reminded that we should be embarrassed about some of the things we do. Having the mark in the shape of the cross shows that we believe that Jesus can make things better.
This Lent step up and do what is right – make a decision to “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel”. Follow the way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Here’s a list of things you might consider doing:
- Make a commitment to read the Sunday readings before you go to Mass
- Don’t have time to read all 3? Just read the Gospel
- Make a commitment to try something new spiritually – eg Eucharistic Adoration
- Think about what you usually spend your money on – new clothes? iTunes? eating out? Pick one type of expenditure, fast from it and give the money to charity.
- Go to a weekday mass once during the week
- If you don’t have a cross in your house, buy one and put it in your room
- Read the Gospel of Mark – it’s the shortest! The cross, a traditional Lenten symbol, plays a central role.
- Attend the Stations of the Cross
- Eat fish on Fridays during Lent
- Turn off your iPod or the radio on the way to school – the silence may be hard at first, but you may become more in tune with the world around you
- Buy a book of daily reflections and keep it by your bed
- Think about a habit that has kept you from who God wants you to be. Consciously give up that habit for Lent.
- Fast from more than just food
- Fast from cruel comments about others
- Make a point of learning about a particular social issue eg: racism, AIDS, child poverty etc
- Pray for somebody – a close friend or someone who you see on the street that you think is in need
- Remind yourself of the baptismal commitment to renounce sin
- As you fall asleep at night, repeat the mantra ‘Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.’
- Read the works of mercy as Jesus describes them in Matthew 25 ‘For I was hungry . . .’
- Make a list of all the excesses in your life. Which ones could you do without?
- Attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation