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IN A NUTSHELL
One way to prepare ourselves for Lent is to better
understand the day that starts it all: Ash Wednesday.
The words spoken while ashes are pressed on our foreheads
ignite us like the opening gun at a race. We're off. A pilgrimage has begun.
Wednesday is a rally of sorts, to give people encouragement and motivation.
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Ash Wednesday: Rituals and symbols
By Paul Senz
Catholic News Service
is not one that readily embraces the idea of sacrifice. There is little recognition
of the profound benefits of self-denial and of giving completely of oneself to
others -- and to God.
All the more
reason, then, for us as Catholics to actively live out the ideals of the
penitential season of Lent. One way to prepare ourselves is to better
understand the roots and symbolism of the season and the day that starts it
all: Ash Wednesday.
The name of
Lent comes for the Old English word for spring. In most other languages, the
name of this season is derived from the Latin term "quadragesima," or 40 days.
of the season is one of its most symbolically important aspects, putting us in
continuity with figures throughout salvation history who experienced
penitential periods of 40 days. Biblically, the number 40 is associated with
discipline, preparation and asceticism.
great flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Gn 7:12) and after the waters
had been receding for some time, "at the end of 40 days" Noah sent a raven out
to test the waters (Gn 8:6-7).
Moses was on
the mountain with God for 40 days (Ex 24:18, 34:28). Elijah traveled for 40
days before reaching the cave where he had his vision (1 Kgs 19:8). Nineveh was
given 40 days to repent (Jon 3:4).
directly related to our liturgical celebration of Lent, Jesus spent 40 days in
the wilderness fasting and praying before beginning his public ministry (Mt 4:2).
Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the season of Lent: "By the solemn 40
days of Lent the church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the
desert" (No. 540).
comes not simply from the length of the season; it is from the three pillars of
Lent -- praying, fasting and almsgiving -- by which we live out the example set
by Jesus and prepare ourselves to celebrate the paschal mystery of his death
Wednesday is one day in particular in which we unite ourselves to the ascetic
fasting of Jesus Christ.
Appropriately, as it is the beginning of the season, Ash Wednesday is a sort of
significance do the ashes themselves hold? Why do we engage in this ritual each
year, and what does it have to do with Lent?
two primary symbols with which we often associate the ashes. First, in the
Bible a mark on the forehead is something that signifies ownership. This
tradition was retained in the early church after the resurrection, as the early
Christians would make the sign of the cross with their thumbs on their
foreheads, indicating their complete gift of self to Jesus Christ.
the forehead is marked with the sign of the cross at baptism, in confirmation
and at every Mass prior to the proclamation of the Gospel. Signing the forehead
with ashes is one more reiteration of this ownership.
perhaps more widely recognized, ashes are biblically a sign of mourning and
penance, as well as death. There are countless scriptural examples wherein
someone will express their penitence and seek forgiveness by covering
themselves in sackcloth and ashes.
Caesarea (circa 260-339), in his "Ecclesiastical History," tells of an apostate
named Natalis who came to Pope Zephyrinus seeking the pope's forgiveness --
clothed in sackcloth and ashes.
also sprinkled on the forehead of one who was to do public penance, as they
left confession. This outward sign of an inward reality increased in prominence
as time went on.
a moment on the words used by the minister when the ashes are administered: "Remember
you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The first part
recalls what God said to Adam when he and Eve were being expelled from the garden
(Gn 3:19), and Abraham's declaration: "I am only dust and ashes" (Gn 18:27). It
is a profound reminder of the reality of death. This phrase is a strong
reminder of our mortality, a reminder that the things of this world are
fleeting, and that we are ultimately meant for the kingdom of God.
Father William Saunders, former professor at Notre Dame Graduate School in
Alexandria, Virginia, this ritual is one that dates back at least to the eighth
century, in the earliest extant editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, a
collection of prayers and other liturgical texts.
Father Saunders notes, around the year 1000,an Anglo-Saxon priest wrote of
repentance being displayed by sackcloth and ashes, and the priest would say, "Now
let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our
heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
Lent is not
merely a preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday, we sign ourselves as
disciples of Jesus Christ, and we strive to live the following 40 days so that
the world knows we are Christians.
(Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.)
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Lent as a pilgrimage
By Effie Caldarola
When the comedian Stephen Colbert appeared, one Ash
Wednesday, on his late-night television show with ashes marking his forehead, I
felt a sense of communion.
He's one of my tribe, I thought. Colbert is a well-known
Catholic. He even invited Jesuit Father James Martin to serve as the unofficial
"chaplain" to his Comedy Central program.
But you don't have to be a celebrity to evince solidarity on
Ash Wednesday. Someone at the desk next to yours, perhaps, or the clerk in the
supermarket line, each bearing the telltale sign of camaraderie that announces
each as a fellow pilgrim taking those first tentative steps on a journey we
Maybe that's why I love Ash Wednesday, and I'm not alone.
Churches are absolutely packed on Ash Wednesday. It's always been a deep
puzzlement to me that churches are actually more crowded on Ash Wednesday than
they are for the services of the Easter triduum.
To me, there are no more stirring liturgies than these
three, which celebrate the central mystery of our salvation. And yet, for sheer
devotion, nothing draws people in like Ash Wednesday.
Someone suggested once that Catholics like Ash Wednesday
because they "get" something at Mass -- a telltale smudge that proclaims their
But every Mass offers us the ultimate "get" -- the
Eucharist. Although it's not something we tangibly show the world, its abundant
grace should triumph over a mere splotch that someone -- not one of your tribe
-- will inevitably point to during the day and say helpfully, "You have some
dirt on your forehead."
Here's my theory on Ash Wednesday, and here's why I value
I see Ash Wednesday as the beginning of a pilgrimage, my
personal journey, but one I share liturgically and spiritually with more than a
billion worldwide pilgrims. I've laced up my hiking boots, I've made my
resolutions, I have my hope of making it to the finish line. And there is a
finish line, folks. Hey, this is a mere 40 days, doable and measurable.
That smudge on my forehead is like that first bit of dust
and mud on my hiking boots. I'm on the way.
When I was a child, the words I heard were bleak -- "Remember
that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Perhaps thinking we need a
little more encouragement than that, the church now offers an alternative, "Repent,
and believe in the Gospel."
Either way, those words ignite us like the opening gun at a
race. We're off. A pilgrimage has begun.
And we all begin it with conviction. But pilgrimages are
tough. Ask those who have walked the Camino de Santiago, that famous Christian
trek made famous in the movie "The Way." It's a journey full of blisters,
fatigue, setbacks and sometimes failure. Sometimes people drop out along the
way, and those that make it to the end may look back ruefully on a difficult
So it is, often, with Lent. The good intentions and firm
resolutions of Ash Wednesday clash with our busy lives and our imperfections.
No one makes a perfect Lent, whatever that means. No one reaches some kind of
spiritual peak every step of this journey.
Maybe that's why some drop out along the path. We set our
goals very high, forgetting that Jesus is interested in our weakness and our
need, not just our supposed strengths and victories.
So on Ash Wednesday, I'll have a plan. How will I grow
closer to Jesus during Lent? That's the only question. I will try to have a
modest, doable goal for each of the three pillars of Lent -- prayer, penance,
almsgiving. Perhaps I'll keep a little journal to reflect my progress. If I
slip up -- and we all will -- I'll begin again.
I will prepare to have my heart cracked open -- and prepare
for a blister or two along the way.
(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for
Catholic News Service.)
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The rallying cry
By Father Herb Weber
Catholic News Service
I confess that after more than four
decades as a parish priest, I am still moved by the Scripture readings of Ash
Wednesday. That is true even if there may seem to be contrasting expectations.
For example, in the first reading from Joel
(2:12-18), the prophet uses words like "Blow
a trumpet ... call an assembly." At the same time, in the Gospel passage from Matthew
(6:1-6, 16-18) used at the same Mass we hear Jesus say, "When you give alms, do
not blow a trumpet before you."
Likewise, when it comes to fasting,
Jesus calls people to "anoint your
head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting." At the same
time, we place dark ashes on the foreheads of adults and children alike as a
sign of their repentance.
Finally, people gather in great numbers
to begin a holy 40-day season of prayer and renewal. Yet we are reminded that "when you pray, go to your inner room, close the
door, and pray to your Father in secret."
Are we ignoring Jesus' challenges to attend to the inner life of the
soul without being showy? A closer look at both readings will ease some of the
It is very tempting for me to spend the
entire Ash Wednesday homily preaching on Matthew's passage about almsgiving, prayer and fasting. After all, they
summarize the traditional ways to seek a change of heart and a renewal of
spirit through repentance.
Those three Lenten observances are
means to some end, not the end themselves. That is why it is necessary to focus
on the prophet Joel. Joel's words make
up the "what" of the message; Matthew's words are the "how."
What Joel calls people to is a major
renewal of heart and spirit. His words are really a rallying cry. Thus the
blowing of the trumpet is to awaken people to the need to universally and
collectively change their lives.
Many people implicitly understand that
Ash Wednesday is a rally of sorts. What will follow the next 39 days is equally
important, but people need to be given encouragement and motivation. That also
explains why gathering as a group and not just praying alone is important. We
gather with fellow sinners admitting our sinfulness and looking to God's mercy.
In recent years, I have begun washing
off the ashes on my forehead shortly after each Mass. I do this in the spirit
of Matthew's Gospel reading. As I
wash, I often pray that my heart will wear this sign of repentance for the next
At the same time, I know that people
need visible and exterior signs, so if the ashes are worn for that day alone,
the symbol can be seen, not unlike wearing a cross around one's neck, as a sign of going beyond the immediate
pleasures and gratification of this world.
Again this year we will rally for the
beginning of Lent with the Scriptures reminding us of the call to true renewal.
(Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Many Catholic organizations and
ministries offer daily or weekly Lenten reflections for free. Here are a few
options to consider incorporating into your Lenten resolutions this year:
-- Catholic Relief Services offers CRS
Rice Bowl reflections weekly during Lent: www.crsricebowl.org/email-sign-up
-- "Living Lent Daily" sends a daily
email based on the day's scriptural readings: www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/lent/living-lent-daily
-- "Praying Lent" is an online ministry
of Creighton University featuring audio conversations and daily prayers for
-- Bishop Robert Barron's "Word on Fire"
ministry sends daily Lenten reflections in English or Spanish: www.lentreflections.com
-- "Best Lent Ever" is a program offering
a daily video message featuring Matthew Kelly of Dynamic Catholic: http://dynamiccatholic.com/bestlentever
-- The Word
Among Us website has a daily meditation based on one reading from the daily
readings at Mass: https://wau.org/meditations
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