“Ashes indicate there was once fire. We go to the source to be inflamed again. God is fire; we are ashes.” (from the Living with Christ Missalette for February 2010, written by Robert Dueweke)
I just returned home from attending Ash Wednesday Mass and I have to say, I am filled with more of a sense of peace and contentment than I have been for the past 6 weeks or so. I spent much of the fall essentially living at friends’ houses and then I had my daughter home for three weeks at Christmas and New Year’s. From the time she went back to university around Epiphany until now, I can’t say that I have been really depressed but I guess a good way to say it, is that I have been a little blue. It’s probably mainly from the difference between all of that interaction with other people to a very solitary time as well as the gloomy winter weather. My mood changed so much today as I sat through the Ash Wednesday service.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” Joel 2:13
Ash Wednesday takes place the day after Shrove Tuesday. It is determined, just as Shrove Tuesday and Easter are, by the lunar calendar and can occur anywhere from February 4th to March 10th. It is always 46 days before Easter. An interesting fact is that Ash Wednesday has never yet occurred on a Leap Year Day (February 29th) and will not do so until 2096.
“Create in me a clean heart O God and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:7
I had someone once ask how it could be 46 days before Easter when Lent is supposed to 40 days long, to mimic the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. During the season of Lent, each Sunday is considered to be a “mini-Easter” – celebrating Jesus’ triumph over death through his resurrection so Sundays are not counted among the 40 days. In fact, any sacrifices made for Lent (for example, when people give up things like chocolate) don’t “count” on Sundays and you are free to feast away!
“We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do. We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew…” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
After a day (or in some places, several days) of feasting and indulgence, Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season of penance, sacrifice, and self-examination. Some view it as a sad, depressing time but really, I find it to be a time of hope and promise. After all, it’s meant to be a time of preparation and sometimes I think people lose their focus of exactly what it is they are preparing for.
“As we leave with ashes on our foreheads, let us walk toward the blazing energy and promise of the Easter fire.” (from the Living with Christ Missalette for February 2010, written by Robert Dueweke)
Ash Wednesday gets its name, of course, from the ashes placed on the celebrants’ foreheads during the Mass. The ashes are created by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. They are blessed with holy water and incense and then mixed with Chrism (holy oil made from balsam and olive oil also used in blessing those entering the Catholic church). By the way, when you see people out and about on Ash Wednesday with the ashes still on their foreheads, it is because they are there to remind others of the meaning of the day and as such, it is considered improper to wash them off. They are to be left on our foreheads until they just fade away naturally. Traditionally, when the priest applies the ashes to our foreheads, he says one of the following:
“Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Mark 1:15
“Repent and hear the good news.” Mark 1:15
Why ashes? Ashes have a long historical background in the Bible. Beginning back in the Old Testament, there are references to priests taking the ashes from burned sacrifices and pouring them over people as a sign of penance and purification. In Genesis 18:27, Abraham states “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Job reiterates this in Job 30:19 saying “I am reduced to dust and ashes.” Both of these statements infer a sense of humility associated with ashes. Ashes were also used to express sorrow and regret as in Jonah 3:6 when the people of Nineveh were punished for their disobedience by total destruction of their city. The king, hearing about this, “covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes”.
“If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true, An offering of ashes, an offering to you.” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
In some congregations, little white cards were passed out to the parishioners and they wrote a sin down which they wished to confess and work on releasing during Lent. These cards were then burned and used along with the burned palm leaves. When my daughter was younger, we used to do our own version of this at home and nowadays I use Joss paper to write down and symbolically release negativity from my life through burning it. I used this idea at school as well but with my students, I obviously couldn’t allow them to burn the papers so instead, we would tear them up into tiny little bits, allowing them the feeling of releasing their sins. I would take the torn pieces home with me and burn them afterwards and then bring the ashes back to school for a ceremony.
“We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts, The gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt.” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
Besides the ashes aspect, there is also the fasting and abstinence component to Ash Wednesday (as well as Good Friday). According to the Catholic Church, members between the ages of 18 and 59 (exemptions are made for pregnant and nursing women and those with health conditions) are required to fast on this day. Contrary to what many believe, the term fasting here does not refer to abstaining from food entirely. Parishioners are allowed to eat one full meal and two smaller meals (which when combined cannot equal a full meal). It is also the expectation that they will not indulge in foods that are especially loved or considered luxuries on this day.
“Give our stumblings direction, give our visions wider view, An offering of ashes, an offering to you.” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
Some Catholics take in only bread and water on Ash Wednesday whereas others eat meals basically comprised of rice (often as part of Operation Ricebowl. This initiative is designed to make the participants feel as though they are truly making a sacrifice, to bring an awareness of the many people who live in poverty and exist predominantly on rice alone, and to encourage them to donate the difference in money they would have spent between their meager meal of rice and a typical dinner to the poor.
“Then rise again from ashes, let healing come to pain,
Though spring has turned to winter, and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing, and create the world anew
From an offering of ashes, an offering to you.” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
The rule of abstinence states that Catholics aged 14 and over must abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. These sacrifices are designed to draw our attention to what’s truly important and to remember and honour the great sacrifice that Jesus made by dying on the cross.
“Thanks be to the Father, who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son, who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit who creates the world anew
From an offering of ashes, an offering to you.” (from the hymn Ashes by Tom Conry)
About 100 years ago, the rules were even stricter. Fasting had to be done every one of the 40 days of Lent (not Sundays) and abstaining from meat had to be done every Wednesday and Friday of Lent. In addition, even on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, they could only eat meat once a day. The rules for fasting were also much more restrictive. During the Middle Ages, it was also not only meat that had to be abstained from – fats and dairy were included in this.
Much like the tradition of a Jesse Tree at Christmas time, here is a lovely idea for creating a Lenten Cross. There are readings for each day and then suggestions for making pictures to attach to a cross as symbols related to Biblical stories especially important to the Lenten season. http://www.lent-and-easter.com/page_08_The_Lenten_Cross.html