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Ash Wednesday remains a significant day for Catholics in an increasingly secular society. Ashes, like palms on Passion Sunday, continue to draw even those who do not regularly attend public worship.
It is important that parishes take advantage of this prime opportunity to evangelise those who come on Ash Wednesday through a carefully planned liturgy, solid preaching and sound theological catechesis. Ashes should therefore never be given out unless in the context of a liturgy comprising at least a Liturgy of the Word, homily, blessing and distribution of ashes, universal prayer and blessing and dismissal of the faithful.
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to preach on the meaning of Lent as a period of intense final preparation for those to be baptised at Easter and as a 40 day retreat for all of us preparing to renew our baptismal vows at Easter when we are asked “Do you renounce sin so as to live in the freedom of the children of God”?
The faithful can be challenged to reflect on what it means to come for ashes and begin the 40 day pilgrimage if they do not intend to continue the journey to its natural destination. Effort should be put into warmly encouraging them to return for Sunday Masses, Lent scripture groups and Lenten devotions.
The signing of the cross on the forehead is a clear link between Ash Wednesday and baptism that could be fruitfully explored in preaching. At the beginning of the Rite of Baptism for Children the infant is marked on the forehead with a cross by the presider, parents, godparents and family members. Being similarly signed on Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are called to live in the world as sons and daughters of God.
Using ashes obtained by burning palms from the previous Passion Sunday provides a wonderful life-death-life symbol of the paschal mystery to explore. The palms are a symbol of Christ our triumphant king (life); that triumph turns to ashes at the crucifixion (death); being marked with those ashes signifies our commitment to journey to the font at Easter (life).
The new Collect for Ash Wednesday Mass restores the military images used in the opening prayers for the Mass of Lent in the Tridentine Missal:
“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”
The Blessing of Ashes is in fact a prayer for those who are marked with the ashes, rather than a blessing of the ashes themselves. Both options provided speak of God’s mercy and kindness, as seen in the first of them:
“O God, who are moved by acts of humility
and respond with forgiveness to works of penance,
lend your merciful ear to our prayers
and in your kindness pour out the grace of your blessing
on your servants who are marked with these ashes, ..”
The alternative text for use during the signing with the ashes remains “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, but the first option has changed from “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”. The call to repentance and faith is direct and unambiguous.