How To Understand Ash Wednesday

Counting backward forty days from Easter (with the exception of Sundays) is Ash Wednesday, a Christian Holiday which marks the beginning of Lent. To understand Ash Wednesday, you must first understand the following:

  1. The history: It is thought that Ash Wednesday's roots come from as early as the sixth century. At that time, people who committed the most serious of sins, and repented and confessed to the bishop, were assigned a penance, or punishment. This penance oftentimes lasted a long period of time, so the sinner was marked by ashes and special clothing as a penitent (one who is performing a penance) and was made to sit in a different part of the church until his sin was forgiven. The rest of the congregation spent the time before Easter praying for the sinners, and that forty days became what we know as Lent.
  2. The symbolism: The placing of ashes on the forehead is a symbol of one's own repentance and confession of sin. The Bible tells us, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23), therefore everyone has cause to repent and ask forgiveness. Near the end of the 11th century it was traditional for men to be sprinkled with ashes and women to have ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead. That tradition has shifted so that now both men and women receive the cross shape. The ash also symbolizes the beginning and the end of human life, as the priest recites "Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). It is common, now, for some Catholics who receive ashes to leave them on until sunset of Ash Wednesday. The ashes are burned palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday mixed with olive oil and sometimes infused with incense.
  3. The Biblical evidence: The use of ashes in repenting from sin is mentioned several times in the Bible. Jeremiah says, "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). Isaiah states that, while he disagrees with the practice, it was common: "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Is 58:5). Even Jesus, in the New Testament says, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).
  4. The tradition: Ash Wednesday is considered a day of fasting and prayer in the Catholic Church. Believers attend a church service which features ancient prayers and the sprinkling of holy water on the ashes. The ashes are then placed on the penitent's forehead while the priest utters the words from Genesis mentioned above. The believer abstains from meat during this day, and on Fridays throughout the next 40 days until Easter. Again, the tradition of fasting symbolizes self-sacrifice and obedience to God. The season ends with the joyous resurrection of Christ at Easter and the feast of the Easter dinner.

 

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