Death. Self-sacrifice. Fasting. Self-denial. These are the dominant words and phrases for the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday begins the 40 day period before Easter Sunday. Our consumption culture goes against the practice of denying the self of earthly pleasures.
According to Thomas Merton, “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and , the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.” Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. This article will examine a couple reasons for why Christians wear ashes upon their foreheads.
Latin for “remember that you must die” memento mori is the motto for Lent. Christians are called to die to selfish tendencies—sin. Before receiving ashes we hear the priest tell us, “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.” This is a reference to Genesis 3:19.
God reminds Adam and Eve that they will eventually die. That reminder is extended to us every Ash Wednesday. Thinking about our death should not lead to morbidity. Death is a transition from this life to the next. St. Rose of Viterbo said it well, “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious.”
Call to repentance
Along with reminding us of our mortality, ashes point to the need for conversion. Throughout the Bible ashes were used as an outward sign for the need for interior repentance. In the book of Job, the main character refers to ashes several times. Job 2:8 states, “Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.” To close the book, Job calls to mind his need for renewal by uttering, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Another example from the Old Testament comes from the Book of Esther. Learning of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, Mordecai, chief adviser to the king, performed acts of penance including tearing at his clothing, donning a sackcloth, and wearing ashes.
The prophet Daniel also used ashes in similar fashion. In Daniel 9:3 the prophet proclaimed, “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”
Free and No Obligation
While Ash Wednesday is among the more popular days of the liturgical year it is actually not a Holy Day of Obligation. People pack churches lack sardines in a can. Why? Probably because you get free ashes. People love free stuff.
The temptation of Ash Wednesday is to parade yourself for the rest of the day as a holy individual. Certainly holiness is a goal for everyone, but we have to be careful of displaying piety for the sake of publicity. Jesus touched on this topic in Matthew 6:5: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” The key is mindset. Keep God first and yourself last.
Be witnesses to the faith. Don’t be afraid to wear the sign of the cross on your forehead. Ash Wednesday is a great tradition in the Church. Seek the help of the Holy Spirit to guide you deeper in prayer. Fast and give alms to increase in virtue. May you have a blessed Lent!
Ash Wednesday: Catholic Answers
Reflections on Blessed John Henry Newman’s Lenten Sermon
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Wish you great blessing during this Lenten season!