Ash Wednesday

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and it marks the first day of the season of Lent.  For the next six weeks, Catholics will prepare themselves in a special way for the celebration of Easter. We’ll go to Mass and receive ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the Cross of Christ.  As our priest marks us, he will implore us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), just as Jesus preached to the people of Galilee.
The ashes we wear are prepared by burning the palms used at last year’s Palm Sunday Mass and mixing the ashes with holy water and blessed oil.  The ashes have in them the memory of Christ’s joyful entrance into Jerusalem as well as the waters of our Baptism and the oil of our Confirmation in Christ.  They also remind us that our mortal bodies will return to the dust of the earth one day. 
Ashes were used in the Jewish tradition as a symbol of repentance and sorrow for sins.  Job told God of his own sorrow when he promised to “repent in ashes and dust” (Job 42:3-6).  In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday has been observed since at least the eighth century.  Christians who had committed grave sin performed public penances.  On Ash Wednesday, the local Bishop would bless hair shirts which they would then wear for 40 days of penance.  He would sprinkle them with the ashes from the last year’s burned palms.  The penitents could not return to church until Holy Thursday.  Soon, all Christians came on Ash Wednesdays to be marked with ashes.  The cross on our foreheads, which we won’t wash off until after sundown, marks us as belonging to Christ.  It also recalls the cross made on our foreheads at our Baptism, reminding us that our conversion in love is an ongoing process of drawing closer to Christ, through His Grace. 
Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence for most Catholics.  We won’t eat any meat and we’ll limit our food to one meal and up to two other very small meals.  Some of us will drink only water and eat only bread.  We do this in imitation of Christ, who fasted and prayed for forty days before He began His ministry (Matthew 4:2).  “Fasting consists not only in abstinence from food but in withdrawing from sinful practices” (St. John Chrysostom).  So today we also look in our hearts and recognize our sins and our need for repentance.  Just as we can’t see the ashes we wear until we look into a mirror, Lent calls us to look into our hearts and see the wounds of our own sinfulness.
The season of Lent is a time of prayerfulness, repentance and self-examination.  But we should also be joyful.  “Lent” means “spring” and reminds us that Easter is coming soon. The six Sundays in Lent are six “Easters” as the Resurrection of Christ is remembered each week.  “We are an Easter people,” said our late Pope John Paul II.  “Giving up” something for Lent can be giving up the burdens of sin that we carry every day—impatience, pridefulness, self-reliance, an unforgiving spirit, or whatever our particular sins might be.  What joy we can know as we experience the mercy and forgiveness of our Savior in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Our Lenten journey is a walk with Christ to Calvary and, through the Love and Mercy of His Passion and Death for us on the Cross, to the empty tomb of Easter morning.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday
O God
You have made us for Yourself
and against Your longing there is no defense.
Mark us with Your love,
and release in us a passion for justice in our disfigured world;
that we may turn from our guilt and face You,
our heart’s desire.
                        —by Janet Morley

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