By Fr. Kevin Magner
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. There has been a lot of talk this year among the Church hierarchy about how we are to distribute ashes “safely”. Two of the ways that were suggested to give ashes this year were by sprinkling a small amount on top of the head or by applying ashes to the forehead using a cotton ball or cotton swab. Our parish will be using cotton swabs.
But this discussion of ashes has also raised the question of why we use ashes in the first place. How did we come up with this strange custom of putting ashes on our heads? Actually, it is a practice that goes back a very long time. Ashes are the burnt remains of something that used to exist, and so they represent mortality. The traditional words for applying ashes reflected this: “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes also represent mourning and penance. We see this many times in the Old Testament. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes to plead to God to spare the Jews from destruction. Job repented in sackcloth and ashes after all he had was taken from him. Jonah preached repentance to the people of Nineveh and they responded by using sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance.
Eventually, the Church began to use this ancient practice as a way to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. Around the year 1000 AD, an Anglo-Saxon priest named Aelfric preached, “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.” This sign of repentance is represented by the newer formula for Ash Wednesday: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
No matter which formula is used, the person who receives ashes is called upon to repent of their sins and to carry that thought of repentance throughout the 40 days of Lent. As we begin this holy season this week let us enter into it with a sincere sense of repentance and a determination to amend our lives for the good.
Have a blessed week!
Wednesday, February 17, 2021 ~ Ash Wednesday
6:30 AM Liturgy of the Word with Imposition of Ashes ~ Church
8:30 AM Mass with Imposition of Ashes ~ Church and live-streaming on YouTube and Facebook
12:00 PM Liturgy of the Word with Imposition of Ashes ~ Church
5:30 PM Mass with Imposition of Ashes ~ Church
7:00 PM Mass with Imposition of Ashes ~ Church and live-streaming on YouTube and Facebook