|Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to
the Lord, your God. (Joel 2:13)
The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times. Ashes
symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on
sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus to kill all of the
Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job
42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, "I turned to
the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" (Daniel
Jesus made reference to ashes, "If the miracles worked in you had taken place
in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago" (Matthew
In the Middle Ages, the priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying,
"Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return."
The Church adapted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of
Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. In our present liturgy for
Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm
Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the
foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, "Remember, man
you are dust and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be
faithful to the Gospel." As we begin this holy season of Lent in preparation for
Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received: We mourn and do
penance for our sins. We again convert our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died, and
rose for our salvation. We renew the promises made at our baptism, when we died to an old
life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world
passes away, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment
Q: What is Lent?
A: Lent is the forty day period before Easter, excluding Sundays, which begins on Ash
Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). [This traditional
ennumeration does not precisely coincide with the calendar according to the liturgical
reform. In order to give special prominence to the Sacred Triduum (Mass of the Lord's
Supper, Good Friday, Easter Vigil) the current calendar counts Lent as only from Ash
Wednesday to Holy Thursday, up to the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Even so, Lenten practices
are properly maintained up to the Easter Vigil, excluding Sundays, as before.]
Invite a non-practicing friend to Mass with you.
Almighty and everlasting God, you despise nothing you have made and forgive the
sins of all who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and
acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever.
Ash Wednesday is a day of both fasting and abstinence.