There are things you might want to know as we kick-start Lent on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lenten observances of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The forty-day period leads to the celebration of the paschal mystery – Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
1. Priests Will Sprinkle Ash on Top of a Person’s Head
Ash Wednesday is in the news. Vatican issued a note of how priests can distribute ash on Ash Wednesday to avoid spreading COVID-19. The Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments says that priests can sprinkle ash on top of a person’s head on Ash Wednesday without saying anything. Priests usually place the ash on people’s foreheads marking a sign of a cross. The priest would then say: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember you are dust and to the dust, you shall return.’ The Vatican suggestion has the advantage of not requiring the priest to touch multiple persons.
2. Ash Symbolizes Mortality and Repentance
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of forty days before Easter. Easter is the event of the resurrection of Jesus, the greatest of all Christian feast. Ash is an external sign of preparation – repentance, and penance for the sins. Christians reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, who redeemed humanity from sin. Ash is a reminder of human mortality, as death turns us to dust. Before that happens, live a good life and repent for your sins.
3. Ash is Made from Leftover Palms from the Previous Palm Sunday
The Roman Missal instruction suggests ash is to be made of palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday. These palms are mostly burned a few days before Ash Wednesday; some even buy ash from authorized religious suppliers. The ash is mixed with holy water or chrism oil to create a light paste. In some countries, dry ash is sprinkled on the head rather than a mark on the forehead.
4. Anyone Can Receive Ash on Ash Wednesday, not just Catholics
It may come as a shock; no rule says ‘only Catholics can get ashes’—anyone who comes forward or can mark themselves with ash as a sign of repentance. There is no obligation that every Catholic should receive ash on Ash Wednesday.
5. Yes, You Can Wipe Off Your Ash
Some people are uncomfortable wearing their ashes outside the church because of job requirements. If you cannot keep the ash the whole day, don’t worry about removing them – even if it accidentally falls off – don’t feel guilty about it. The church does not have a strict obligation to keep the ash on the forehead the entire day. A few even wipe off the ash immediately after the service.
6. It’s A Day Of Fasting And Abstinence From Meat
Catholics practice fasting and abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday. Food deprivation should lead people to pray and share more with suffering humanity. The law of fasting binds those who are 18 to 59 years old, but there are exceptions like medical reasons and specific cases. Fasting is giving up one full meal a day. It’s not intermittent fasting for specific hours for health. It is fasting for holiness. Catholics are expected to give up meat on Fridays during Lent.
7. The Leftover Ash is Not Dumped Into The Trash
Leftover Ash of Ash Wednesday is dealt with respect, as the priest blessed it to draw the faithful’s attention to holy things. As a holy item, it would not be thrown away as garbage. The ash is disposed into the earth, an area not easily trampled upon by people. Proper disposal is given to any sacramental element (holy oil and holy water) that has outlived its usefulness. These holy items are thrown in a sacrarium – sink in the sacristy with link to the ground, not the sewer.
8. Ash Wednesday Started Almost 1000 Year Ago
As it is celebrated today, Ash Wednesday is never mentioned in the Bible. But the book of Daniel links fasting to ash. Some scholars believe that is the origin of the lenten practice. But the way you know lent started only in the 11th century.
9. Not all Christians Observe Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is not even a Catholic practice. It is strictly a Roman Catholic observance. Eastern Catholics do not observe Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is recognized by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Mormons, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals avoid Ash Wednesday rituals.
Even I am fascinated and become ever more conscious about the practices of faith on Ash Wednesday. Did you find something surprising or you did not know about it? Do let me know in the comments section below.
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