Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The ashes we receive today are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of last year. The ashes are blessed with Holy Water and are scented by being exposed to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and sorrow, they are a reminder that God’s graciousness and mercy to those who call on Him during this season of Lent. We are asked to seek mercy during Lent through reflection, prayer and penance. If we followed the example of the Ninevites, we’d be doing penance in sackcloth and ashes.We are only asked to have our foreheads marked with ashes to humble our hearts to remind us that our life will pass away on Earth. That’s why we are told “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance blessed by the Church to help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave sins performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. I didn’t know the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins. This reenacted Adam, the first man being turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Holy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
So when we receive our ashes, we could keep our ancestors in mind and prayerfully thank them for their precious teachings. They went through much more contemplation and remorse than we do today. We should have great respect and thankfulness for the teaching they left to us.