Liturgical Color: Violet
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~Distribution of ashes
It was a common practice within the early Church that those who were found guilty of grave public sin needed to do public penance before they were admitted back into communion with the Church and admitted to the Most Holy Eucharist. The public sinners came forward in sackcloth forty days before Easter and were sprinkled with ashes, in keeping with many Old Testament examples of public penance. They fasted and prayed for forty days and then, on Easter, were readmitted into full communion with the Church. Eventually, prior to the end of the first millennium, this practice was extended to the entire Church as a way of highlighting everyone’s need for penance. One of the earliest mentions of this practice becoming universal comes from an English Benedictine monk who wrote:
We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.
Today, as a sign of our ongoing need to repent of our sins and do penance, the faithful are invited to come forward to be marked with ashes as a sign of their commitment to the penitential season of Lent, so as to celebrate with great joy the Solemnity of Easter. Lent is forty-six days long. Forty of those days are penitential days, and six of them are Sundays. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes with the Easter Vigil. The forty penitential days are an imitation of Jesus’ forty days in the desert.
As we come forward to receive ashes, the minister traditionally says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This line is taken from the Book of Genesis when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. He told Eve that she would suffer the pains of childbirth and be subjected to her husband. God told Adam that he would labor for his food through sweat and toil. To both of them, God said this curse would last “Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Thus, the final curse of original sin is death: “…to dust you shall return.”
As we come forward to receive ashes, we should hear God saying to us, as He said to Adam and Eve, that we also suffer the consequences of original sin and will die. But that curse must be seen in the light of God’s final plan of salvation. Today, we acknowledge that the curse of death will endure but also hold onto the hope of resurrection made possible through Christ. Lent is a time of repentance for our sin and hope in redemption. Ash Wednesday is our liturgical and public statement that we have chosen both repentance and redemption.
As you come forward to receive the ashes today, don’t just go through the motions. Make this act a prayer and one of deep interior devotion. Call to mind your sins and the sins of your whole life, as best you can. Acknowledge the just punishment of eternal death that you deserve for your sins. But then call to mind the infinite and unmerited mercy of God. Remember that even though you are an undeserving sinner, God has reached down from Heaven to offer you the gift of eternal salvation. He has invited you to receive this gift through your repentance and humility. Humble yourself today in “sackcloth and ashes,” and as with those public sinners of old, God will use this Lent to more fully unite your soul with His through His glorious death and resurrection.
Most glorious and Triune God, You have justly condemned me but mercifully offered me redemption. As I enter this season of Lent, I wholeheartedly acknowledge my sin and repent. Please be merciful to me, a sinner. Help me to make this Lent a truly penitential season so that my soul will be more disposed to receive You this Easter. Jesus, I trust in You.
As Lent begins, the following resources may be of help to you:
40 Days at the Foot of the Cross
Rules for Fasting and Abstinence During Lent
All Saints for the Liturgical Year
Holy Week & Easter
Feasts at the Conclusion of the Easter Season
Fast and Abstinence
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.
For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.
Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are to observe the particular law of their own sui iuris Church.
If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the “paschal fast” to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.