February 17, 2021
Today, February 17, the Church observes Ash Wednesday. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
At the beginning of the sixth century, out of a desire to have forty days of actual fasting (Sundays being non-fast days), the fast was begun on the preceding Wednesday. Henceforth this Wednesday marked the start of Lent. It has been an early custom that special penance for those who are guilty of serious sin should start at the beginning of Lent. In the beginning it was on the Monday after the first Sunday of the Lent. Later on it was shifted to Ash Wednesday. The penitents in those days were given penitential garment and ashes were sprinkled on them followed by the rite of expulsion from the Church. These special garments and ashes receive inspiration from Old Testament and gospel (Mt.11: 21) Tertullian (founder of Western Theology) and Cyprian (Theologian and Bishop) mention about this practice in their writings.
The rite of expulsion disappeared in the 10th century, but the rite of ashes remained. In 1901 Pope Urban II recommended this practice to all the churches. In the new missal this rite of ashes take place after gospel and homily. Today, the summons of Jesus in the Gospel according to St Mark, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” (Mk.1:15) and traditional formula; “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” (Gen.3:19) is used while putting ashes on the forehead. The imposition of ashes is penitential practice symbolizing our dependence upon God's mercy and forgiveness.
A note from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments with regard to distribution of Ashes in time of Pandemic says:
The Priest says the prayer for blessing the ashes. He sprinkles the ashes with holy water, without saying anything. Then he addresses all those present and only once says the formula as it appears in the Roman Missal, applying it to all in general: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”, or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
The Priest then cleanses his hands, puts on a face mask and distributes the ashes to those who come to him or, if appropriate, he goes to those who are standing in their places. The Priest takes the ashes and sprinkles them on the head of each one without saying anything.
As a church, we ponder and pray over the call given by Jesus. Jesus, in Gospel according to St Matthew, calls us to pray, to fast, and to give alms: ‘When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,’ ‘when you fast, do not look gloomy,’ ‘when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing’ (Mt 6:5,16,3).
Prayer is that process of listening to and responding to God's daily call, sustains and nurtures our relationship with our triune God. According to St Teresa of Avila, prayer is an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. Without prayer, personal and communal, this relationship is diminished, sometimes to the point of complete silence on our part. Pope Francis, in his Lenten message 2018 says, devoting more time to prayer, we enable our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers.
Fasting, a very special form of penance, and Jesus' second call, has been a consistent part of our Catholic tradition. All of us have to deal with areas of servitude, whether in regard to smoking or alcohol consumption, misused sexuality, uncontrolled gambling, psychological hang-ups, spiritual obsessions, use of stimulants, immoderate use of the internet, excessive amounts of television watching, or preoccupations with other forms of entertainment like gossiping. By fasting and self-denial, by living lives of moderation, we have more energy to devote to God's purposes and a better self-esteem that helps us to be more concerned with the well-being of others.
Almsgiving, the third call of the Lord is to give alms. Jesus was always concerned about those who were poor and in need. He was impressed by the widow who, though having so little, shared her resources with others: "I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood" (Lk 21:3-4). Pope Francis, want us as Christians, to follow the example of the Apostles and see in the sharing of our possessions a tangible witness of the communion that is ours in the Church, to be a disciple of Christ means to live a life of charity. All of us are called to participate in this evangelizing work of transforming our world.
During this forty-day period each year, the Church unites itself to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. To prepare to celebrate the Easter mysteries, we devote time during this special season to pray, to perform works of charity, and to deny ourselves by fulfilling obligations more faithfully.