Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent - a six week period during which we prepare to observe our Lord’s death and celebrate His resurrection. Lent emphasizes the twin themes of repentance and growth in the faith. We repent of our sins as we prepare to observe Good Friday and our Lord’s death for the sake of those sins. We also seek to grow in the faith through catechesis (instruction) during this time of spiritual discipline.
In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of repentance and mourning. Ashes are also associated with the mortality of death which sin brought into the world, for as God said to Adam after the fall, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Around sixth century A.D. the churches in vicinity of the Rhine River began the practice of placing ashes on the people as a sign of repentance. During the succeeding centuries this practice spread to the rest of the Church.
The imposition of ashes is offered to all who wish to receive it. After the litany, the pastor invites those who wish to receive ashes (produced by the burning of palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday) to come to the front of the nave. He makes a small cross on the forehead with the ash and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When congregation members haves received ashes, they return to the pew. During this time the congregation sings a hymn.
Through the imposition of ashes we visibly demonstrate mourning over our sin and repentance. We are also reminded by the ash and the pastor’s words that, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The ash reminds us that the presence of sin in our world and lives leads to death. The ash of Ash Wednesday helps us to acknowledge our sin and its impact as we prepare to watch our Lord suffer, die and rise from the death in order to take away our sin and defeat death. May the ash present on Ash Wednesday remind all of us of our need to repent and of the mortality sin has brought into the world.