If there ever is a day of the year when you can spot Catholics at a glance, Ash
Wednesday is it. It is the one time when Catholics literally wear their faith
on their foreheads. In fact, Masses on Ash Wednesday are better attended than
Masses on most holy days, except Christmas.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for
Catholics. The ashes we receive on our forehead in the shape of a cross serve
as an outward sign of our sinfulness and need for penance. The ashes also symbolize
our mortality, a reminder that one day we will die and our bodies will return
to dust. Hence the traditional words, �Remember that thou art dust and unto
dust thou shalt return.�
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
Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence for Catholics.
According to Church law, Catholics older than the age of 14 are supposed to
abstain from meat. In addition, those between the ages of 18 and 59, not including
pregnant or nursing mothers, should eat only one full meal. Smaller amounts
of food�not as much as a full meal�may be eaten in the morning and either at
lunchtime or dinner, depending on when you eat your full meal.
More Than Rules
As long as I can remember, Lent always seemed to be about rules,
rules and more rules to me. What�s so spiritual about following a bunch of
rules? I often wondered.
The truth is, I now understand, Lent is about much more than rules.
How many times in your life have you thought, If only I could change things/do
things differently? Well, that�s where Lent can help. Ash Wednesday serves
as our wake-up call at the beginning of Lent. It is a time to identify the things
we have done wrong or wish we could change or do differently. Then we can choose
to do something about them during the next 40 days of Lent.
And what about those rules such as abstinence and fasting? Those
serve as gentle reminders to stay the course.
Lent is a journey, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Here are some ideas
to help you and your family along the way:����� �
Try to attend Ash Wednesday services together as a family. Most
parishes offer evening Masses to help accommodate working parents and busy families.
Attend a penance service at your parish. Going to confession provides
a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start spiritually. Plus, if your kids see
you partaking in the sacrament, they�ll be more likely to go themselves.
Focus on the meaning behind your fasting and abstinence. For instance,
if having a particular food is a special treat for your family, the point of
why you are abstaining from meat is probably lost. Try to find another meatless
alternative for dinner.
Collect the palm branches you received last year on Palm Sunday,
gather your family together and burn the palms. Hold a family prayer service
with the ashes. When you are done, do not throw out the excess ashes, but rather
bury them in your garden. If you don�t feel comfortable conducting such a ritual
yourself, check with your parish to see if it is collecting last year�s palm
Since Ash Wednesday is a reminder of the need for spiritual renewal
and change in our lives, take some time to review your life and name those areas
where you need renewal. Once you have identified these areas, identify ways
to make a change.
Read T.S. Eliot�s poem �Ash Wednesday.�
Next Month: The Gift of Joy and Laughter