Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
17 Feb 2010
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting, prayer and giving alms.
This giving of alms is usually referred to as making a contribution to the poor - for example through Project Compassion It has also been called The Day of Ashes and although not a holy day of obligation, many people attend Church where the priest marks their foreheads with ashes in the shape of a cross.
These ashes have come from the burning of palms after Palm Sunday the previous year.
The name day of Ashes comes from Dies Cinerum in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century.
Though the origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).
In the old Testament ashes were found to have been used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality; and as a sign of repentance and sorrow for sin.
At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban 11 called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day comes to be called Ash Wednesday.
At first clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with the ashes on their foreheads.
Eventually the ritual used with women came to be used with men as well.
Putting a cross mark on the forehead is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism.
Ash Wednesday should remind Christians that all are sinners in need of a saviour, and that their salvation comes at the sacrifice of Gods Son.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Blessed are you, O Lord Our God, the all-holy one who gives us life and all things.
As we go about our lives, the press of our duties and activities often leads us to forget your presence and your love.
We fall into sin and fail to live out the responsibilities that you have entrusted to those who were baptised into your Son.
In this holy season, help us to turn our hearts and minds back to you. Lead us into sincere repentance and renew our lives with your grace.
Help us to remember that we are sinners, but even more, help us to remember your loving mercy.
As we live through this Ash Wednesday, may the crossed of ashes that mark our foreheads be a reminder to us and to those we meet that we belong to your Son.
May our worship and prayer and penitence this day be sustained throughout these 40 days of Lent. Bring us refreshed and renewed to the celebration of Christs resurrection at Easter.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.