The placing of ashes makes it clear that every person in the Church is constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
There are many rituals in the Catholic Church which may seem strange or even bizarre to the uninitiated. Looking from the outside, some of these rituals can perhaps come off looking a tad peculiar and almost anomalous to anything that proclaims to be rational and sound.
One of these may be the imposition of ashes on our foreheads once a year, when the liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
The very action of accepting with a willingness to have our faces smeared and smudged with dirt militates against all that the human person does and ensures to have an appearance that is pleasant and presentable to the world.
As a priest who has presided over this rite and have marred the visages of so many of my parishioners over the years each Ash Wednesday, it never fails to make me ponder over the significance of this action.
After the last parishioner walks back to the pew, and after I have washed my hands and turned to face the congregation, I am always a little startled and astounded to see each person looking at me, with a face carrying a blot of dirt. Every person, baptised or not, the young or old, or even the infant, gets to come up to receive this smudge on their foreheads during this Mass.
It has a meaning that goes deep. Symbolically, it reminds each one present that no matter what our rank, status, title or background, we all share a commonality that we hardly care to acknowledge, but when we do, will go a
long way towards our spiritual maturity.
It is the revelation that beneath all the fanciness that we use to cover up our shared inadequacies and insufficiencies, we are all made of dust, as we remember that “we are dust, and unto dust we shall
Placing of ashes on the face of every person at the Ash Wednesday liturgy makes it crystal clear that every person in the Church, including the presiding priest in the sanctuary, is a sinner who is constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
At the heart of it all, each person, in big and small ways, has a predilection to pander to his or her own ego and selfish desires on so many levels, and it is a reminder to all that as a community, as a Church and as a people of God, we need to at least once a year let those ashes jolt us back to reality.
The entering into the 40 days of Lent is a time of penitence and simple living, a re-appreciation of the passion and saving action of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, who has given us a chance of regaining entry into heaven. The season of Lent also energises us for our constant battle with sin and evil.
Indeed, the Easter promise of the resurrection was, and is, always going to be ours to share and enjoy, but it is also something that we must never take for granted either.
Lent readjusts our points of focus in life for all of us. As Saint Paul said, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Lent, thus, is a time of returning to humble beginnings.
Father Luke Fong is Assistant Priest at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This is a condensed version of his article which first appeared in his blog, frlukefong.blogspot.com.
Observing the ritual
Who can come forward to receive the ashes?
Anyone, regardless of age, and whether one is baptised or not.
How long should one keep the ashes on one’s forehead?
Until they fall off naturally. Besides, it’s a good testimony of our faith and it reveals that we are Catholics.
Where do the ashes come from?
From the palms that are returned to the church from last year’s Palm Sunday and which are subsequently burnt.
What must I say when I come forward to receive the ashes? What must I do when I stand before the priest?
One receives the ashes in silence, and returns to the pew after receiving them.
Do I have to fast on that day?
Code of Canon Law 1251 says that abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is defined as consuming only one full meal and two small meals that do not together add up to one full meal. Only those aged between 14 and 60 are obliged to keep this law. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.