Ash Wednesday: A symbol of renewal

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

MATTAPOISETT, Mass. — Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday, continuing an observance that began sometime around the early Middle Ages; a practice that became an official Liturgy in the 13th century that leads Christians into the 40-day season of Lent, a season of fasting, reflection and penance culminating in Easter Sunday.

According to “The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday” by Dr. Richard P. Bucher, Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes), is mentioned in the earliest copies of the “Gregorian Sacramentary,” and probably dates from at least the eighth century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his “Lives of the Saints,” he writes, “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.” Aelfric then proceeds to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt. This quotation confirms what is known from other sources that throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head, rather than anointed on the forehead as is currently done.

Typically the ashes placed on the forehead of an individual come from the branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, which falls one week before Easter and commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The ashes are a profound symbol for the faithful and are meant to remind people that life is short; a time for Christians to carry the cross. Ashes are a sign of physical death, and as God created Adam from the dust of the Earth, so too will faithful followers return to dust until raised up by Christ.

“When I was young, I thought of Lent as that great time of ‘giving up.’ I would always wonder what it might be that year; usually it was candy or soda,” said Father Paul Caron, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in Mattapoisett and St. Rita’s Parish in Marion.

“Now I realize the importance of this season,” continued Father Caron. “I came to my deepest understanding of it several years into my priesthood. I had retained the attitude that it was all about ‘sin.’ It was not until our parish got serious about Christian Initiation [RCIA] that I began to understand what Lent was truly about. It wasn’t just about ‘sin’ but about renewal. Just as the ‘elect’ were preparing for the Easter Sacraments during this time of ‘purification and enlightenment,’ so too was I preparing to renew my baptismal promises. In order to do that in a better way, I too had to go into the desert with the elect and candidates and live this time of purification and enlightenment. That happens through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are manifested in Spiritual and practical ways in the season.”

According to “The Daily Missal of the Mystical Body,” on Ash Wednesday in the early days, the pope went barefoot to St. Sabina’s in Rome “to begin with holy fasts the exercises of Christian warfare, that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial.” 

For more than 1,200 years the faithful have approached the altar to receive the ashes on his or her forehead. Not only are these ashes made from the burnt palm fronds that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year, the ashes have been sprinkled with Holy Water, usually fragranced with incense and blessed using four prayers that are thousands of years old. 

“I suppose my preparation for Ash Wednesday is the same as my preparation for the season of Lent. I think about how I will pray, fast and give alms; how I will live that season,” said Father Gregory Mathias, VG, pastor of St. John Neumann in East Freetown.

“I think the most fundamental preparation for the faithful is to recognize the change of the season to Lent and to take steps to have a Lenten consciousness. Ash Wednesday sets the tone for this,” continued Father Mathias. “I often say that ashes are ‘less than nothing.’ If you had absolutely nothing and you received ashes, you would gain nothing; it would be a further negation. Sin separates us from our relationship with God; without God, we come to annihilation — we are less than nothing. The traditional application to the head corresponds to the way figures in the Old Testament — like Job — indicated their repentance.”

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals. Some Catholics will go beyond those obligations and undertake a complete fast or simply partake of only bread and water.

“People should prepare for the season by meditating on how well they have lived out and lived up to their Baptism. In Baptism, we were plunged into the death and Resurrection of Christ, and so we need to see what we need to change to be ready to renew those promises at Easter,” said Father Caron. “We come together on Ash Wednesday as a sign of our solidarity. We all admit that we are all in the same boat (c.f. Joel reading).”

Parishioners should attend Mass and receive ashes because “Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the whole season of Lent. The Liturgy prepares us to live the way of Lent,” said Father Mathias.

Being marked with ashes humbles the heart and is a reminder that life passes away on Earth: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

“Ash Wednesday gives us a chance to begin anew to be the best people that our God is calling us to be,” said Father Caron. “Truly a season of blessings!”

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