Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Ash Wednesday is inextricably linked to Easter. After all, it marks the beginning of the Lent penance period that ends on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. In churches during Lent, the colour purple is prominent, symbolising mourning and penance and churches may remove decorations and choose more solemn hymns, to reflect Lent’s sombre tone.

What is the purpose of Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday celebrates the first day of Lent. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert and fasting.

The type of fast - which Jesus himself endorsed - can be found in Matthew 6:16-18: “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

On Ash Wednesday, the Catholic faithful commence a period of 40 days of fasting (excluding Sundays) – eating only one large meal or two small meals. Those meals must not contain any meat. In fact, Catholics over the age of 14 should refrain from eating meat on every Friday from Ash Wednesday through to Good Friday.

In accordance with the principles of Lent, many Catholics choose to give something up or change an ingrained habit during the 40-day-period. Pope Francis has also encouraged us to give more time “to the soothing remedy of prayer” and charity before the celebration of Easter.

Ash Wednesday - what do the ashes mean?

The ashes, applied in the shape of a cross, are a symbol of penance, mourning and mortality. It is symbolic of the Bible verse Genesis 3:16, which reads: “For you were made from dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ashes are usually made by burning palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year, and placing them on the heads of participants while reminding them of the Genesis verse.

Centuries ago, participants used to sprinkle themselves with ashes and repent much more publicly, but the practice fell away sometime between the 8th-10th century before evolving into what it is today.  There aren’t any particular rules about how long the ashes should be worn  but most people wear them throughout the day as a public expression of their faith and penance.

Lent’s place in the 21st century?

In today’s fast-paced world, there are many things that demand priority in our lives. Lent is for anybody that wants to engage in the process of self-examination and realigning of priorities.

Father Paul Bourke from the Diocese of Port Pirie in South Australia said the ways in which Catholics observed how Lent has changed over the generations.

"I think people are more relational these days; perhaps they were more functional once, they would give up lollies, give up chocolates," he said.

"But I think prayer, relationships, that has certainly evolved and our society has evolved as well."

Father Bourke said Lent was a time to think about others.

"It is estimated that 55% of the people in the world live on a handful of rice a day," he said.

"We don't want to know that because we live in such a comfortable country, but I think Lent is a chance to focus on things like that and realise that we are blessed and called to share our goodness."

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s day and falls on 14 February.

Will you be giving anything up for Lent this year?

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