If there ever is a day of the year when you can spot Catholics in an office or on a street or any place, it is on Ash Wednesday. It is the one time during the year when Catholics literally wear their faith on their foreheads. The tradition of receiving ashes has its origins in the Old Testament, where sinners performed acts of public penance. /It was Pope Urban II who in the 11th century recommended that all Catholics take part in the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. In the 12th century it became customary that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday were made by burning the previous year’s palm branches of Palm Sunday.
The ashes we receive on our forehead in the shape of a cross serve as an outward sign of our sinfulness and need to be reconciled with God; we are all sinners and are in need of God’s Mercy.
The ashes also symbolize the reality of our mortality; we are finite human beings; today we remind ourselves that one day we will die and our bodies will return to dust. This truth of our human finiteness is particularly important when we live in a secular world which over-emphasise on living a long life; and for the many who make health and longevity as the most important focus in life, as though “death” is a tragedy that wipes out all that we have and live for in our earthly life. No, for us Christians, the IS LIFE after DEATH.
Thus, for us Catholic Christians, today’s celebration of Ash Wednesday is an affirmation of the reality that our time on earth is but a journey; a journey that does NOT end on earth, BUT leads to our eternal home in heaven with God and all the saints.
That is why even as Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, that emphasises on: fasting, prayer, penance and almsgiving, it is a season of joy NOT to be seen as a season of gloom and doom where we have to give up a lot of our indulgences and lifestyles that gratify us. Lent indeed is a JOYOUS season of preparation for the Easter celebration that is to come. When we pray more, make more penances, fast more and give more alms to the needy, all these spiritual ways of living our faith are not gloom and doom, on the contrary, as Jesus in today’s Gospel tells us, that if all these are done in secret and in the sincerity of our hearts, out of love for God as our Father, and not to attract attention and to glorify ourselves, then our prayers, penances, fasting and almsgiving will surely bring JOY to our hearts and homes.
This is the context of the traditional words: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shalt return.” Or the other forms of expressions like, “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
(Cf. Adapted from: www.americancatholic.org; St Anthony Messenger – Faith-filled Family; Ashes to ashes.)
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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