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Next Wednesday (6th February) is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Church’s 40-day season of Lent.
For many Australians, especially the young, the term ‘Ash Wednesday’ is associated more strongly with bushfires than with an important date in the liturgical calendar. On Ash Wednesday 25 years ago bushfires swept across Victoria and South Australia, resulting in the deaths of more than 70 people, destroying hundreds of buildings, killing thousands of livestock and razing millions of hectares of countryside.
Just over 5 years ago, in one of the country's worst natural disasters, fire roared into Canberra's western edge destroying almost 500 houses and claiming four lives. Again this summer, bushfires have touched many parts of Australia and continue to burn in some areas.
For anyone who has experiences a bushfire firsthand the sight, feel and smell of ashes evoke feelings of fear, powerlessness and mourning. This resonates with the many references to ashes representing human insignificance in the Hebrew scriptures. Abraham says of himself: "I am dust and ashes" (Gen 18:27).
Bushfire brings death and destruction but also acts of bravery, selflessness and compassion – volunteer fire fighters putting their lives on the line, community groups feeding and housing the displaced, people across Australia donating money to assist those who have lost everything.
Much native Australian flora is dependent on the heat of the bushfire for regeneration. Just a few days after fire has destroyed bushland eucalypts are already sprouting fresh green shoots.
As we are signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent, we are reminded of our human insignificance and repent our failings. But we remember also that we are Easter people - that good can come out of evil, that death gives way to new life, that there is hope in the midst of despair.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence. In current Catholic practice, to fast means having only one full meal on a day. Smaller quantities of food may be eaten at two other meals but no food should be consumed at any other time during the day. The law of fasting applies to people from 18 to 59 years old.
Abstinence is the practice of abstaining from the use of certain kinds of food. Everyone aged 14 years and older is bound by the law of abstinence from meat.
A prayerful Ash Wednesday observance assists the faithful to enter into 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.
This solemn blessing for Lent captures the essence of what our celebration of Ash Wednesday, and of the season of Lent, is about:
The Father of mercies has given us an example of unselfish love
in the sufferings of his only Son.
Through your service of God and neighbour
may you receive his countless blessings.
You believe that by his dying
Christ destroyed death for ever.
May he give you everlasting life.
He humbled himself for our sakes.
May you follow his example
and share in his resurrection.