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Wednesday this week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Church’s 40-day season of Lent and of our annual journey to Easter with other Christians and with those who will be initiated into the Church at the Easter ceremonies.
Ash Wednesday is perhaps the one weekday other than Christmas when Catholics go to church in good numbers. Being marked with ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance is still important in Catholic liturgical spirituality.
The sacramentary states that the giving of ashes is not to be done apart from a service of the word. The context of scripture avoids the risk of conveying the impression that the sacraments and sacramentals of the church themselves are holy things that ‘give grace’ automatically without regard for the personal responsibility of being open to the presence of Christ in the scriptures and rituals of the day.
The readings for Ash Wednesday call all followers of Christ to undertake the discipline of Lent in a spirit of dependence on the Lord mindful of the grace that this season brings – ‘This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit’. (Preface of Lent II)
The gospel teaching to do our Lenten works in secret warns against a spiritual pride that can destroy the good that we intend to do.
After the readings and homily, the ashes are blessed and sprinkled with holy water.
The faithful come forward to be signed with the ashes in the form of a cross. The ritual incorporates three symbols: the ashes, sign of death and repentance; the cross, the paradox of life through death; the water, reminder of our baptism into Christ. These three together signify our willingness to embrace a way of life that will lead to Easter glory, to which we are committed through our baptism, and which demands dying to ourselves over and over again in order to live more deeply the new life offered by Christ.
Two forms of words are provided for the giving of the ashes: the old formula ‘Remember you are dust…’ and ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel’. The first is a clear reminder of our mortality; the second an unambiguous call to conversion and gospel living. The latter form is more likely to resonate with today’s spirituality. It also resonates with the challenge to pattern one’s life on the model of the gospel that is central to the catechumenate.
Following the giving of the ashes, the rite concludes with the general intercessions. The sample intercessions for Lent given in the appendix of the sacramentary are a good choice.
The text of the prayer over the gifts on Ash Wednesday brings together the works of Lent, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ the Lord, the cleansing from sin and the renewal of spirit. Relating Lent to Easter is an important element of the entire Lenten observance.
A prayerful Ash Wednesday observance goes a long way in helping believers to enter the season in the spirit of the church’s Lenten observance. The communal prayer experience, the ritual of the ashes, the familiar Lenten readings and hymns provide the context out of which the journey of renewal and continuing conversion proceeds.