Today ushers in the season of Lent as Christendom kneels in the greatest form of humility as man submits to the realization that he came from dust and to dust he must return.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. In ancient times, the preparation for Easter differed in length in various countries. Later it was so arranged that forty days of fast would precede the greatest test as a reminder of our Lord’s fasting in the desert.
In ancient times, ashes signified grief and repentance.
In today’s liturgy, the priest blesses the ashes with a special prayer and sprinkles them on the forehead of the faithful with the words: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In this era of modernity, man attempts to conquer even Mother Nature with the advancement of science and technology. However, in the final analysis, man realizes that he is a mere creation and must bow to his Maker. This is the highest virtue one can possess in whatever time and clime.
Ash Wednesday is one of the most important liturgical events of the year. This day opens the season of Lent which formerly began with the first Sunday and comprised only thirty-six days.
The addition of Wednesday and the three following days brought the number to forty which corresponds to that of our Lord’s fast in the desert.
In the Old Law, ashes were generally a symbolic expression of grief, mourning or repentance. In the early Church, the use of ashes had a like significance with black cloth forming part of the public penances. The blessing of the ashes is one of the great liturgical rites of the year. It was originally instituted for public penitents, but is now intended for all Christians as Lent should be a time for penance for all. The ashes used on this day were prescribed by the Church.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence. The Catholic Church, the God-appointed guide of men on their way to heaven, does not leave her children to their own opinion in important matters. Penance is an important matter, according to the words of our Divine Savior: Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish. (Luke: 13,3).
Among the penances practiced by Christ and the saints, fasting holds a prominent place. It is for this reason that the Church gives us special regulations as to our fasting and abstinence.
Every Catholic, unless lawfully excused, is bound to keep these mild and gentle regulations and no self-imposed bodily mortification can take the place of the ones obtained by burning the palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday rites.
Four ancient prayers are used in blessing them and having been sprinkled with holy water and incense, the priest uses them to mark a cross on the foreheads of the faithful with the words: Remember, man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return. The ancient prayers of the blessing suggest suitable thoughts for the opening of Lent. They are summarized here:
Almighty and everlasting God, spare the penitent bless these ashes, that they may be a remedy to all who invoke Thy name. Oh God, who desirest not the death but the conversion of sinners, look kindly upon our human frailty and bless these ashes, so that we, who know ourselves to be but ashes and that we must return to dust, may deserve to obtain pardon and the rewards offered to the penitent.
The Law of Fasting forbids more than one full meal a day. All Catholics from the completion of their twenty-first to the beginning of their sixtieth year, unless lawfully (by Church laws) excused, are bound to fast. If for any reason, you cannot fast, consult your confessor or your parish priest for advice.
The Law of Abstinence forbids the use of flesh-meat and of soup made from it. Eggs, cheese, butter and seasonings of food are permitted. All Catholics seven years old and over are obliged to abstain.
Here is a thought for today from the Following of Christ: Happy is the Man that can cast away all the hindrance of distraction, and recollect himself in the unity of holy compunction! Happy is the man who casteth away from him whatever may stain or burden his conscience!