Why is Ash Wednesday important?
Among the most beautiful, meaningful and solemn ceremonies of the Catholic Church is the gathering of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on March 2nd.
This special day begins our Lenten journey. It is the start of 40 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter. But why does Lent begin on a Wednesday, and what is the purpose of ashes?
- Ash Wednesday was added to the liturgical calendar long after the 40 day penitential season of Lent became the norm throughout the Western Church. Lent was universally established only after the early Church sorted out the date of Easter.
- CCC 1170: The issue was clarified at the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 where “all the Churches agreed that Easter, the Christian Passover, should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon (14 Nisan) after the vernal equinox.” The vernal (spring) equinox generally falls on March 21st, so the date of Easter in the Western Church can occur anytime between March 22nd and April 25th.
- The dilemma then became how to count the 40 days. In the Latin Church, 6 weeks were used to identify the Lenten period. However, fasting did not apply to Sundays, so 6 Sundays were subtracted and there remained only 36 fasting days. In the early 7th century, St. Pope Gregory I the Great resolved this situation by adding the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the 1st Sunday of Lent as fast days. Thus, the Lenten 40 day fast would begin on a Wednesday.
- The Church has long used ashes as an outward sign of grief, a mark of humility, mourning, penance and morality. The Old Testament is filled with stories describing the use of ashes in such a manner. In the Book of Job, Job repented before God: “Therefore, I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
- Later, Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the penitential garb which they would wear during the 40 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.
- So, when we attend Mass on Ash Wednesday and receive the blessed ashes on our forehead, we are repeating a somber, pious act that Catholics have been undergoing for over 1,500 years. 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.
Join Us in Prayer
Gracious God, today begins a period of inner reflection and examination. The days stretch before me and invite me inward to that silent, holy space that holds your Spirit. This special time beckons me to see my life through Christ’s eyes and the truth and reality of your love incarnate. Give me the grace to enter the space of these days with anticipation of our meeting. And, when I open my soul to your presence, let your loving kindness flow over me and seep into the pockets of my heart. I ask this for the sake of your love. Amen.
Visit The Station of the Cross for more authentically Catholic media content and listen to this homily from Sermons for Everyday Living which discusses the importance of Ash Wednesday during the season of Lent.
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