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Why Ashes?

By Fr. Larry Rice

For centuries, Catholic Christians have marked the beginning of the season of Lent by receiving ash on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. This tradition has its roots in the Old Testament, where wearing ashes was a common sign of repentance for sins, and a sign of one’s humility before God. Since Lent is a season of penitential renewal through prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, it’s appropriate that this ancient sign marks the beginning of the season. The ashes themselves are usually made by burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.This symbolically connects the beginning of Lent with its end, connecting our change of heart with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Ashes are usually distributed as part of the Mass on Ash Wednesday, often after the homily. As people approach the priest or other minister, he presses the ashes

to their foreheads, and speaks one of two phrases: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

In many places, Ash Wednesday services are among the most popular of the whole year—a day that’s not even a Holy Day of Obligation. Cynics have suggested that this is because people “get” something, as they do on Palm Sunday.But there’s nothing particularly appealing about getting smudged with ashes. Perhaps, the appeal is the expression through a physical sign of a desire for interior conversion. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday is a reminder that the real purpose of the season of Lent isn’t to make public demonstrations of piety—even the wearing of ashes—but to seek conversion

of heart.

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