BY HUGH TURLEY — One day this month, chances are you will see a few people with black smudges on their foreheads. You won’t have to check the calendar to know it is Ash Wednesday. In recent times, this Christian holiday has been eclipsed in many quarters by the day that precedes it, Shrove Tuesday — better known as Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday).
Unlike, say, Christmas, Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast that varies each year in relation to Easter Sunday. This year it falls on February 22, but it can occur as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. It is always 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays), which occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. Fortunately, that’s not a formula one has to remember, as secular calendars and appointment books frequently note the date along with other holidays.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and repentance to prepare for the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. Among some Christians, Ash Wednesday is so popular even many non-Catholics go to church to receive ashes. (Since ashes are a sacramental, not a sacrament, in the Catholic Church, anyone who wishes to may receive them.)
Typically, ashes used to mark a cross on the foreheads of the faithful are from burned palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Water or olive oil may be mixed with the ashes to help them adhere to the forehead. The priest may say, “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
During Mass on that day, the gospel reading gives the blueprint for Lent in a nutshell, as Jesus tells his disciples to pray, give alms and fast privately and not publicly for all to see.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting during Lent is a reminder for man to turn away from desires of the flesh and contemplate higher things. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 60 must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and do a modified fast by eating only one complete meal and two smaller meals. Many choose to make other sacrifices for the duration.
Fasting also can serve as penance for sin. The origin of ashes as a form of penitence is found in the Old Testament Scripture as when the prophet Daniel said, “I turned my face to the Lord God begging for time to pray and to plead, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” And in the book of Jonah the king in Nineveh “put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes.”