Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season in many Christian denominations. Lent is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting, which prepares us for Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Ashes are applied on a person’s forehead in the sign of a cross, with the words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
The wearing of ashes is a biblical sign of mourning and repentance. The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. Ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. They also symbolize grief, that we have sinned and caused division from God. Furthermore, they remind us of our human morality, and the need for reconciliation with God and neighbor.
This ceremony started with the early Christians. During that time, Christians who had committed grave sins, especially public sins, like denying one’s faith, adultery, or murder, performed penance in preparation for their restoration to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts, which were worn during the forty days of penance and sprinkled them with ashes made with the palms from the previous year. As the Bishop did this, the faithful would recite the seven penitential Psalms and the penitents would be asked to leave the church, or remain apart, until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). By the 10th century, the giving of ashes was part of the public penitential rite of the church. Eventually, all the faithful were “enrolled in the order of penitents”, by receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent.
All Christians and non-Christians can receive ashes. By wearing ashes, we acknowledge our sinfulness, and desire for conversion among ourselves, and within the community. As we prepare to begin a new liturgical season of Lent, which invites us to a personal renewal, acts of charity, prayer and fasting, let us allow the blessings that flow from the season to enter our lives and to follow Jesus Christ more faithfully.
Fr. John Owusu-Achiaw, C.S.Sp.