Today I celebrated the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday) at St. John’s Lane Church in Dublin. I’ve decided to give up all forms of meat during this holy period. Here’s a bit of information on the importance of Ash Wednesday and the holy season of Lent.
Source: Catholic Online
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.
Why we receive the ashes
Following the example of the Nine vites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told
“Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar. Occurring 46 days before Easter, it is a moveable fast that can fall as early as February 4 and as late as March 10.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
This practice is common in much of Christendom, being celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and some Baptist denominations.
At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the sign of the cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one or both of the following when applying the ashes:
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
The liturgical imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sacramental, not a sacrament, and in the Catholic understanding of the term the ashes themselves are also a sacramental. The ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water. In some churches, they are mixed with a small amount of water or olive oil, which serve as a fixative. In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 (LXX Psalm 50) is especially associated with this day. The service also often includes a corporate confession rite.
In some of the low church traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.
In the Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to anyone who wishes to receive them, as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity. Similarly, in other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.
In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In the medieval period, Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of penitential confession occurring after fasting and the remittance of the tithe. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.
As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.
1 “Prayers and Reflections- buying ash from the Holy Land”. Ash Wednesday. http://ash-wednesday.org/ashes.html. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
2 “What is Lent and why does it last forty days?”. The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=2870. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
3 “The Liturgical Year”. The Anglican Catholic Church. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. http://www.anglicancatholic.org/dmas/litdescp.html. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
4 Ellsworth Kalas. Preaching the Calendar: Celebrating Holidays and Holy Days. Westminster John Knox Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=QQpXwIt3ihAC&pg=PA25&dq=ash+wednesday&hl=en&ei=OdV2TfXYHcyArQH4oNCHCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CEEQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=ash%20wednesday&f=false. Retrieved 8 March 2011. “We are wise, therefore to explain, whether in the course of the homily or in the church bulletin or newsletter, something of the meaning of the day: of ashes as an ancient symbol of loss and repentance; of the historic words spoken during the imposition of the ashes, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”; of the practice in many religious communions of using ashes made from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday; and, of course, that the imposition of ashes is a sign of mourning and repentance.”
5 William P. Lazarus, Mark Sullivan. Comparative Religion For Dummies. For Dummies. http://books.google.com/books?id=oTtcFiGbW2kC&pg=PA98&dq=lent+lutheran+catholic+methodist&hl=en&ei=4NF2Tf3LLsL_rAGmtoBf&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CFUQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=lent%20lutheran%20catholic%20methodist&f=false. Retrieved 8 March 2011. “This is the day Lent begins. Christians go to church to pray and have a cross drawn in ashes on their foreheads. The ashes drawn on ancient tradition represent repentance before God. The holiday is part of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian liturgies, among others.”
6 Sylvia A. Sweeney. An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent. Peter Lang. http://books.google.com/books?id=u2ZV_f4uZUEC&pg=PA137&dq=lent+lutheran+catholic+methodist&hl=en&ei=4NF2Tf3LLsL_rAGmtoBf&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CEAQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=lent%20lutheran%20catholic%20methodist&f=false. Retrieved 8 March 2011. “In the twentieth century, the imposition of ashes became part of the liturgical experience of not only Roman Catholics, but Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans as well.”
7 Ford, Penny. “Lent 101”. Upper Room Ministries. http://www.upperroom.org/methodx/thelife/articles/lent101.asp.
8 “Lent and Easter”. The Diocese of London. 17 March 2004. http://www.london.anglican.org/NewsShow_2653.
9 Psalm 51 is the Ash Wednesday reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and The Catholic Lectionary.
10 “What is the significance of ashes being placed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday?”. The United Methodist Church. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=2871.
11 “Responses to frequently asked questions regarding Lenten practices”. Catholics United for the Faith. http://www.cuf.org/news/newsdetail.asp?newID=30#ash2.
12 Code of Canon Law, canon 1170
13 Donovan, Colin B.. “Communion of Non-Catholics or Intercommunion”. Eternal Word Television Network. http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/intercommunion.htm.
14 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844
15 “Pastor’s Message: Ash Wednesday, An Invitation To Lent”. First United Methodist Church. 28 February 2001. http://www.gbgm-umc.org/fumc-wallingford/sermons/sermons01/2001_02_28.html.
16 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 1251
17 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1252 §§2–3