by Alban D Souza-Udyavara/Bajjodi
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lenten season (i.e. 46 days of fasting ) before the Easter for Christians. It occurs 46 days (40 weekends plus 6 Sundays) before Easter and can fall as early as 4 Feb or as late as 10 March. It marks the start of a 46 day period before Easter. This year it is celebrated on the 18th of February. This is also called the start of the Lenten season for the preparation for Easter.
According to the Scripture (N.T.) Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke, Lord Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in a desert. Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert while fasting and praying. (Mt: 4:11, Mark:1:12-13, Lk: 4:1-13). Then Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s help resisted the temptation by praying and remained faithful to God the Father. It is also 40 days of repentance analogues to the 40 days in O.T during which the great prophet Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf.
Lenten Season reflecting on this act of Jesus, has fasting for 40 days as a preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Wed. to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding weeks. Thus making up the number of 40 days.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from the branches blessed on the previous year’s palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accomplishments of the words “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you shall return“ (Gen: 3-19). Now it is revised as “Repent & believe in the Gospel” ( Mk: 1-15). There are different ways of placing the ashes on the heads of the worshipers in use within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the most common being to use the ashes to make a Cross on the forehead and sprinkling the ashes over the crown of the head. In its ritual of blessing of Ashes, the Rite states that “the ashes are blessed at the beginning of the Mass (Eucharist), and are then blessed and placed on the forehead of the clergy and people”. In addition, those who attend such catholic services, whether in a Catholic Church or elsewhere, traditionally take blessed ashes home with them to place on the heads of other members of the family, and can be taken home in the envelopes available to facilitate this practice to those who cannot attend the service. At home, the ashes are then placed with the prayer by the head of the family. At the same time, the ashes may be received and allowed by only those who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.
According to Scriptures (O.T), Ashes were used in ancient times to express grief. This is a sign for repentance for the sins and was used to express sorrow. In Job 42:3-6, he says to God, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye Seeth thee. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust & ashes”. Prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying, “O daughter of my people, grid on sackcloth, and roll in the ashes” (Jer: 6-26). Prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dan: 9-13). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes; that day they fasted and wore sackcloth, they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes (1 Mac 3:47, 4:39). Examples of the practice among Jews are found in several other books of the Bible. Jesus Himself is quoted as speaking of the practice (Mt 11:-21 & Lk 10:13), “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre & Sidon, they would have repented long ago sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”
Thus, Christians all over the world continue the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance. The public penance that grave sinners underwent before being admitted to Holy Communion just before Easter lasted throughout Lent on the first day of which they are sprinkled with ashes and dressed in sackcloth. So, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence, and repentance for the sins – this great day is a day of contemplating one’s transgressions and sins.
Now, we sinners here in this world (all humanity), let us give up sins and reunite with God the Almighty by repenting for the sins that we committed against God and our neighbor, and return to God, ask God to pardon and forgive us where He welcomes everyone and again makes us his children giving a new life with Him- Amen.
May God bless all of us on this day of Ash Wednesday.