Ash Wednesday is the day that Lent begins. Ash Wednesday is officially a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Catholics. Other liturgical faiths may also follow many of these Lenten traditions.
Lent consists of Forty days before Easter. We skip Sundays in the western Church because Sundays are always a day to joyfully celebrate the Resurrection. Because of this Lent always begins on a Wednesday. Traditionally there is no fasting or self-denial on Sunday, only rejoicing, even during Lent.
Since the Day of Ashes always falls on Wednesday it has become known as Ash Wednesday. It is called the Day of Ashes, because the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. Burning palm fronds that have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday makes the ashes. A priest, a practice having been used in God’s rituals since the time of Moses, blesses the ashes.
We can find numerous biblical examples of people putting dust or ashes on their foreheads. In The Bible, a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. By having our foreheads marked with the sign of the cross we wear a symbol that we belong to Jesus Christ who died on the Cross. It is also an imitation of the seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. Throughout Lent you will hear much about baptism. The season is truly centered on this important sacrament. I hope to show this correlation throughout the Lenten season.
But why “ashes?” We can find biblical examples of the use of ashes. Biblical societies relied on wood fires for heating and cooking. Keeping the ashes under control was a major housekeeping task. If a person were preoccupied with something serious they may not have tended to that housekeeping task as usual. A family in mourning may have been reminded by a visitor that they had ashes on their faces. Over time the ashes became a sign of remorse, repentance and mourning. Even as society has changed this remained a symbol, as those in mourning would purposely put ashes on their faces.
During Lent we mourn our sins. We repent of them. Moreover we are surely in mourning for our apparent loss of Christ as he died on the cross until his return on Easter. As we enter this period of sober reflection, self-examination and spiritual redirection we wear our cross on the first day of Lent. We wear our cross as a witness to our faith. We wear our cross as a statement of our love for Christ. We wear our cross as a visible symbol of the invisible but indelible mark on our soul created in baptism. We wear our cross because we are in mourning but we are hopeful--we are faithful