Why Catholics Wear Ash, Significance, Observance
Ash Wednesday is here again. Annually on this day, Catholics have ashes marked on their foreheads as a reminder of their mortality, as referenced in Genesis, “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). But there will be no ash on foreheads this Ash Wednesday. In line with the special COVID-19 precautions, ashes will be sprinkled on top of lay faithful heads rather than the Priest using the ashes to make a sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. Nevertheless, all other liturgical features of Ash Wednesday still stand and will be observed.
Ash Wednesday kick-starts the Lent. What is Ash Wednesday? Why do Christians wear ash on Ash Wednesday? What is Lent? What are the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ on Ash Wednesday and Lent? Read REV. JOSEPH ODOZI’s special report
Ash Wednesday and Lenten tradition
Ash Wednesday is a day that holds a special place in the heart of every Catholic. This is because on this day, we wear blessed ashes crossed onto our foreheads. This distribution of ashes is a liturgical event of its kind; as there is no other time in the liturgical calendar where we are reminded in such profound manner our origin, humanity and impending death at once. While some persons focus on ensuring their ashes are not wiped away, others take to the social media with #ashtags, beyond this physical sign, Pope Francis points out to us that the mark of the ashes is a reminder of our origin, that we are taken from the earth and so made of dust, yet God has breathed his spirit of life upon each one of us and still wants to do so. (Homily on Ash Wednesday, 2017). Asides being the day we receive ash, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, inviting us into forty days of a desert experience as we prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. As Donald Cardinal Wuerl would remind us that we are invited to detach ourselves from the things of this world and empty ourselves to be filled with God’s breath of life.
Lent: History, Significance, Important Dates, Observance
Lent (the word “Lent” comes from the Old English “lencten,” meaning “springtime) lasts from Ash Wednesday to the Vespers of Holy Saturday, exactly forty days excluding six Sundays which don’t count as “Lent” liturgically. The Latin name for Lent, Quadragesima, means forty and it refers to the forty days Christ spent in the desert which is the origin of the Season. The season has important days which include Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning, 4th Sunday of Lent which is called the Laetare Sunday, Palm Sunday which begins the last week of Lent, the Holy Week. The last three days of Holy Week i.e. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are known as the “Pascal Triduum.” In the first century, Lent, according to at least four Doctors of the Church (St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Leo the Great, and St. Isidore of Seville), is a pre-Easter fast of apostolic origin; many other scholars, however, believe Lent developed later in the Church’s history. A forty day fast was however noted in the Canons of Nicaea (A.D. 325), in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the desert before his public ministry (with Old Testament precedent in Moses and Elijah). By the fourth century, in most of the West, it referred to six days’ fast per week of six weeks (Sundays were exclud¬ed); in the seventh century, the days from Ash Wednesday through the First Sunday were added to make the number forty. At the beginning of His public life, Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the desert (Mt. 4:1–11; Mk. 1:12–13; Lk. 4:1–13). “By the solemn 40 days of Lent,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the Church unites Cover Ash Wednesday is here again. Annually on this day, Catholics have ashes marked on their foreheads as a reminder of their mortality, as referenced in Genesis, “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). But there will be no ash on foreheads this Ash Wednesday. In line with the special COVID-19 precautions, ashes will be sprinkled on top of lay faithful heads rather than the Priest using the ashes to make a sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. Nevertheless, all other liturgical features of Ash Wednesday still stand and will be observed. Ash Wednesday kick-starts the Lent. Why Catholics Wear Ash, Significance, Observance herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540) And so, this is the season that reminds us of the great sacrifice that Christ made for each one of us. The acts of self-denial, the acts of sacrifice we make during this season help us identify with the sacrifices of Christ. Lent allows us to unite our sacrifice with that of Christ and our pain with his. During this penitential season, the Church calls all Catholics to spend more intentional time in prayer, as well as to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent and to practice charitable giving. The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their 14th year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained 18 years of age, until the beginning of their 60th year. One of the obligations of the Lay Faithful is to ensure Holy Communion is received at least once a year.(Canon 920§1) This must be fulfilled during the Easter season unless it is fulfilled for a just cause at another time during the year.(Canon 920§2). The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1389 and the third precept of the Church affirm this. Hence, it becomes necessary to go to confession sets us straight and prepares us to receive communion in a state of grace, come Easter. This season also encourages us to participate intently in the via crucis or Stations of the Cross Lent is also often portrayed as a journey, from one point in time to another point in time. The concept of journey is obvious for those experiencing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a four-stage programme of baptismal preparation that culminates during Lent and ends during the Easter Vigil. In line with this, the rite of election is celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent marking the beginning of the Period of Purification and Enlightenment. The Penitential Rite is celebrated on the 2nd Sunday of Lent for Candidates alone, while the Scrutinies for the Sacraments of Initiation are celebrated on the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays of Lent for Elect alone.
Ash Wednesday; Its Scriptural Foundation
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. As the name implies, it is the day we have blessed ashes crossed onto our foreheads. Although, there is no explicit mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, it is traced to the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting, which includes wearing of ashes on the head, fasting and prayers. Interestingly, Ash Wednesday is not an holy day of obligation but can be described as an holy day of invitation. Every year on Ash Wednesday, the first reading is taken from the book of Joel 2:12-18 which begins with the words “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart with fasting and weeping and mourning”. This is the invitation the Church extends to you and I each Ash Wednesday. It is also a day of fasting (giving up something) and abstinence (avoiding meat). The ash used is made specifically from the burning palm fronds from the previous year Palm Sunday. By using the palm fronds blessed on Palm Sunday the year before, we remind ourselves that we do not only rejoice at the triumphant entry of Jesus where we welcomed him with palms but we also regret the fact that our sins have necessitated his death for our salvation.
Why do Christians wear ashes
Ashes symbolize two main things in the Old Testament – death and repentance. Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7). For example, Abraham told God, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), a reference to his human mortality. We use ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of our own mortality; that though we are all born here, but none of us is staying here forever. Ashes are also a symbol of repentance for past sins. When Job’s three friends came and found him in such affliction, “they sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven (Job 2: 12).” “The sorrows of the daughters of Israel are seen in the dust upon their heads (Lam. 2:10).” Daniel said his prayers to the Lord his God in fasting, sackcloth and ashes (Dan. 9: 3). Our Lord tells us that if in Tyre and Sidon had been done the miracles seen in Judea, that they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes (Luke 10: 13). When the great city will be destroyed, its people will cry out with grief, putting dust upon their heads (Apoc. 18:19). Ashes are a plea to God for mercy and compassion, pardon and forgiveness. Moreover, they are a public admission of guilt, an expression of sorrow for sins that have been committed, a promise to reform and a pledge to resist temptation in the future. When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins, and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy. In the words of Fr. Michael Schmitz, the ashes means we are sinners but the cross means that we have a savior. The ashes mean we are not who we should but the cross means there is a God who believes fully in us and in the season of Lent, he is trying to make us into persons he believes we can be.
Significance of the words used in applying the ash
The first formula—“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”—echoes Jesus’ words at the beginning of his public ministry (cf. Mark 1:15). It reminds us that conversion is meant to be a deep and lasting abandonment of our sinful ways in order to enter into a living relationship with Christ, who alone offers true freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. The second, older formula—“Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—recalls the poverty and death which are the legacy of Adam’s sin while pointing us to the resurrection, the new life, and the freedom brought by Christ, the Second Adam. (Lent with Pope Benedict XVI: Meditations for Every Day). Despite this reminder, we sometimes forget that without God we are nothing. Without God, all that remains of man’s greatness is that little pile of dust, in a dish, at one side of the altar, on Ash Wednesday.
Living out Ash Wednesday
Because it is the time leading up to the Commemoration of Our Lord’s death for our sins and the commemoration of his resurrection for our salvation, it is only appropriate to mourn our sins for which he died. We are encouraged to first of all dispose ourselves to the spirit of the season. While living in this world, we tend to forget about our mortality, Ash Wednesday reminds us that it is none other than God who created us and ultimately, we shall return to him at the end of our lives. To be worthy residents of heaven, we are encouraged to repent and live pure and holy lives. We can live out Ash Wednesday actively by keeping to the laws of fasting which permit us three meatless meals with the two smaller meals not equaling in size the main meal of the day and no snacking. We are to keep also law of abstinence which forbids us from the consumption of meat and alcohol. We are to resolve to make concrete steps towards repentance, carry out examination of conscience, make amends by asking forgiveness and forgive in like manner and take to the reading of the Scriptures; meditation on the seven penitential psalms (Pss 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Our Lenten prayer might include sorrow for sin and requests to God to help us to bring about the change in our mind and heart that we call conversion.
What are we not allowed to eat on Ash Wednesday
On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics from the ages of 18-60 are expected to fast. Also, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent, adult Catholics over the age of 14 are to abstain from eating meat and alcohol. Daniel 10:1-3 tell us of how Daniel mourned for three weeks, eating no choice meal, no meat or wine. Lamb, chicken, ham, beef, pork, deer, any forms of meat are to be avoided. However, eggs, milk, fish, grains, fruits and vegetables are permitted. There are exceptions however to the very young, elderly, the ill and pregnant.
Fasting, giving up
In the Liturgical Calendar, there are two days when the Church has specifically asked us to fast. They include Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days, fasting means something very specific and limited; i.e. only one full meal in a day, with no food in-between meals. It is understood that two other meals, if one eats three meals a day, should not total one full meal. One might fast in a more complete way by eating only a portion of a single meal. Fasting is a matter of the heart. Our hearts are distracted with so many things — social media, work projects, finances — that we can easily forget about God. This period of lent we are encouraged to give up or fast from things that bring us pleasure or bad habits that may have become a roadblock to our relationship with Christ. We can give up noise, cursing, attention seeking, overeating, gossip, social media, excuses, complaining, pessimism, harsh judgments, worry, discouragement, bitterness, hatred, negativism, pettiness, gloom, jealousy, expectations, ingratitude and comforts such as air conditioner, video games, Netflix, Champions League, hot showers and so on. As we give up these things, let us also put something in, something that will take hold and stay with us for the rest of our lives since Lent is about conversion.
Don’ts on Ash Wednesday and during Lent
It is important to note that the Penitential Rite should not be taken on Ash Wednesday, as its place is taken up by the distribution of ashes. Unblessed ash should not be mixed with blessed ash in order to “top it up”. The General Instruction of Roman Missal in No. 62 statesthat during Lent, the Alleluia before the Gospel is not sung rather the verse before the Gospel as given in the Lectionary is sung. In No. 53, it also states that the Gloria is not sung or said during Lent. In No. 305, we are told that during Lent, it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts. In Lent, the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing and not done alone. The Gospel Reading of Ash Wednesday taken from Matthew 6:1-6 often creates the dilemma of either keeping the ashes on or wiping them off so as not to draw attention. It is not a sin to wash off the ashes. The Church gives no legislation on the duration for it to be worn. It is a matter of personal decision based on the individual’s own inclinations and circumstances and prudence. The ashes can be left on until they wear off naturally or they can be washed off or wiped off when the individual chooses. Some persons opt to wear theirs as a reminder to themselves that they are mortal and fallible, while others may choose to leave them on as a witness to their faith in the hope others will ask about them and open a door to sharing their faith. This is not sinful as well. The Roman Missal also allows for the blessing and distribution of ashes may also take place outside Mass. And so, it is not sinful to receive ash outside the Mass. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon.
Vatican modification of distribution of ash in Covid-19 situation
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has directed in line with the COVID-19 Protocol that after blessing the ashes and sprinkled with holy water in silence, the priest addresses those present, reciting once the formula found in the Roman Missal: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. After which, the priest “cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask, and distributes ashes to those present by sprinkling the ashes on each person’s head “without saying anything.” Bearing in mind that we are in times of a “new normal” and the impeding dangers of the COVID-19 virus, the Church finds it necessary for the priest not to touch multiple persons and to reduce contact as much as possible. This form of sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads is the customary practice at the Vatican and Italy. It also has historical roots linking back to the penitential rites in ancient times. Finally, in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in Lent we hear the re-echoing call to convert and believe in the Gospel thus we are constantly encouraged to open our spirit to the power of divine grace so that we can arrive at Easter renewed and able to say, with St Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). (Benedict XVI, Homily, Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2006).