Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 17. Lent 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 Ninevites in the Book of Jonah 3:6 (the act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God), 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." —Genesis 3:19

Other formulas which may be used during the imposition of the ashes:

"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." —Mark 1:15

"Repent, and hear the good news." —Mark 1:15

The distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls us to repentance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.

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 ashes used in the Mass are sacramentals, not a sacrament. In other words, the ashes do not communicate saving grace as Sacraments do. But as a sacramental, the imposition of ashes 'excite' the faith that is already within us which is strengthened by the graces we received through the Sacraments.

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
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.

Is Ash Wednesday a Holy Day of Obligation?
While all Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday in order to begin the Lenten season with the proper attitude and reflection, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation. It is, however, a day of fasting and abstinence.

Day of Fast and Abstinence
Ash Wednesday is one of two days determined by the Roman Catholic Church as days where penance, fast and abstinence is to be observed (the other day being Good Friday).

The Church used to prescribe very rigorous rules for the Lenten fast (including abstaining from all meat and eating only one meal per day). The current rules, however, are much more lax. Catholics are only required to fast on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and on Good Friday, the day that Jesus Christ was crucified. Anyone over the age of 14, but under the age of 60, should eat only one full meal on those days, although they can also have small amounts of food in the morning and the evening.

The Church continues to encourage individual Catholics to observe a stricter fast (e.g. extending days of fasting throughout Lent or other times of the year, although fasting is never permitted on a Sunday). Extreme fasting, however, can be physically harmful, so, as with all physical forms of penance and of spiritual discipline, you should consult with your priest before embarking on a very strict fast.

Fasting in the Catholic sense always include abstinence. Abstinence is a voluntary restraint from indulging in bodily activities that are widely experienced as giving pleasure. Inasmuch as abstinence signifies abstaining from food, the law of abstinence prohibits all responsible subjects from indulging in meat diet. Although, seafood and dairy products are not included as 'meat' in terms of this definition, the spirit of the law is promote self-restraint.

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