Ash Wednesday is the one day in the year when you can spot the Catholics because they are the ones with the dirty smudges on their foreheads. But what is the significance? Why use ashes?
A SIGN FOR THE WORLD
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent – a period of forty days of preparation for Christians leading up to the great events of Easter when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. This year it is on February 18th. Traditionally it was called the Day of Ashes and has been a feature of the Church all round the world for over a thousand years. It is an important day in the Church’s calendar as it is the day when Christians proudly show their commitment to Christ by displaying the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
A SIGN OF REPENTANCE
Ashes, the dust that remains after something has been burnt, have long been associated with death and grief and in the Bible there are references to people using ashes as a sign of repentance and sorrow for their sins. Daniel, asking for forgiveness on behalf of the people who have turned away from God says, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)
A SIGN OF THE CROSS
Ashes also remind us that we are human and that one day we will die. As the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads the Priest may say one of two phrases either, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” or more commonly these days, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The first phrase echoes the words of Genesis 3:19 when God punishes Adam for his disobedience and the second phrase reminds us that although we will die, Jesus has won the victory over death. If we repent and believe in the good news of the Gospel then we can be saved and have everlasting life.
A SIGN OF OUR FAITH
The ashes are mixed with holy water before being blessed by a priest. They are produced by burning palm crosses that have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, when they were used to celebrate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. By using these ashes, we are reminded that our lives are full of ups and downs, sometimes we celebrate victory and at other times we are asked to carry our cross, as Jesus did on the way to His crucifixion. In the past slave owners would mark their slaves with a sign on the heads so that everyone knew who they belonged to and it is the same with us, when the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads with the ashes it symbolises that Jesus is our Lord and Master. When we cross ourselves with Holy Water as we enter Church we are saying that we belong to Christ and he is a shield to protect us.
A SIGN OF SELF-CONTROL
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting when Catholics are asked, if they can, to give up a meal and not to eat meat. The idea behind fasting is that when we don’t eat for a while then we feel hungry and we are much more alert and able to pray. If we are full or have eaten too much then we feel tired and have no energy. Fasting helps us to appreciate the good things that we have and it also helps us to have control over our bodies and to resist temptation. Christians have always recognised that fasting brings us closer to God and helps us to pray. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting and the Gospels tell us that He was tempted by the devil but, because He was fasting and praying, He had the strength to overcome the temptations.
A SIGN OF SACRIFICE
The forty days of Lent that lead up to Good Friday are traditionally times when Christians fast by giving up sweets, certain foods, drinks or activities like watching our favourite TV programme. We give up something that we would normally enjoy. This helps us to resist temptation and it also helps us to remember that not everyone can afford the luxuries that we have and many people in the world do not have enough food and clean water. Lent is also a very good time to reach out and help others by getting involved in social action projects that help the poor or the oppressed. At the World Youth day in Rio Pope Francis said, “Evangelizing means bearing personal witness to the love of God, it is overcoming our selfishness, it is serving by bending down to wash the feet of our brethren, as Jesus did.” Lent is a time to be less selfish and give our time, our energy and our money to help others. It is also a good time to give more of our precious time to God in prayer, Bible reading and reflection. We should try to go to Mass more often and making a good Confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation will all help us to get closer to God.
A SIGN TO LOOK FORWARD
Although Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and sacrifice we do all these things because we are preparing ourselves to celebrate the greatest feast in the Church’s year, Easter, when Christ, by his death and resurrection saved us from our sins. The greatest act of love ever!
REFLECTION: Let us take a moment to reflect on what we can do this Lent to help us on our journey of faith. What sacrifices can we make to show the Lord that we want to draw closer to him and how can we share his love with others?
“In every province where the king’s command had come, there was much crying and sadness among the Jews. They were fasting and crying loudly. Many Jews were lying on the ground dressed in sackcloth with ashes on their heads.” Esther 4:3