***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series. Click here to read more!***
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, which is a season of fasting and penance. During Lent, which lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday, Catholics prepare for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. Typically, people "give up" something they enjoy (often food) as a reminder of Christ's ultimate sacrifice for us. We also do not eat meat on Fridays.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.Why I love it:
1. "Thou art dust." This is, of course, a direct reference to Genesis 2:7 ("Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being"). Now, while both creation accounts in Genesis were written as literature to transmit theological truths and not literal accounts of how creation took place, I find it very stirring to consider that "every element on earth, except for the lightest, was created in the heart of some massive star" (Science Daily, h/t Rambling Follower). The very atoms in our bodies are stardust!
2. "And to dust thou shalt return." Certain events -- the death of a loved one, even the birth of a child -- remind us that we are mortal. Our culture is so obsessed with eternal youth that it can sometimes be easy to overlook, but we will all die someday. I'm not trying to be morbid here, but I think a healthy perspective on one's own mortality encourages us to make the most of each and every day. We all hope to live long, good lives, but we truly never know which day is our last.
3. The physical ashes: I love Catholic sacramentals (and I will be posting specifically about them later this Lent). Having the wet, fragrant ashes wiped directly on my face is a physical reminder of Christ's suffering and mercy. Wearing them the rest of the day is not something we do to draw attention to ourselves ("like the hypocrites do" -- Matthew 6:16), but something to remind ourselves (every time we glance in a mirror: "what's THAT?-oh right the ASH!") and others of Christ's sacrifice for us. For those unacquainted with the practice, it's a great conversation starter.
4. The beginning of Lent: I love Lent. I think it's beautiful that a penitential, somber time can do so much to transform our lives. I've found it interesting over the years that, even among Catholics and Christians I've known who are lukewarm in their faith, it is often popular to still "give up something" or to abstain from meat on Fridays.
Do you participate in Ash Wednesday services? Are you planning to do anything for Lent this year?