The church teaching on Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday, officially known as the day of Ash, is a day of repentance, when Christians confess their sins and profess their devotion to God.
During the mass of Ash Wednesday, a Priest places Ashes on the foreheads of those present while making the sin of the cross and pronouncing these words.
“Remember you are Dust and unto dust you shall return” or Repent and believe in the gospel.
Christians are not required to wear the ash the whole day on their forehead but are allowed if the wish.
The church does not encourage dining out or non-essential shopping on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is very symbolic and significant because it begins the Lent for all Christians which runs for a period of 46 days.
Job’s contemporaries would have immediately recognized the meaning of some of his behaviors that seem strange to us today: tearing his cloak, shaving off his hair, prostrating himself on the ground, sitting amidst ashes (see job 1:20-21; 2:8).
Many ancient cultures interpreted all these actions as gestures of mourning. They were an exterior form of expression for an interior grief.
Sometimes the mourning ritual reflected sorrow over personal loss, as it did at first in job’s case. He had just received terrible news about several calamities, including the sudden death of all his children (see job 1:13-19).
At other times, these were gestures of remorse-that is, of sorrow over sin. In this case, the wearing of sackcloth and ashes in particular become a common ritual of penance before God and petition for his forgiveness and help (see Dan. 9:3).
Job later used ashes in this way as well, when he felt sorrow for questioning God and decided to “repent in dust and ashes” (job 42:6).
The Catholic Church maintains a token of this mourning ancient custom as an element of the rite for Ash Wednesday.
On this day, the first day of the penitential season of lent, Catholics express remorse for their sins.
The blessed palm branches used in the festive Palm (or Passion) Sunday procession of the year before have been dried and burned, and the ashes are then blessed.
Joy gives way to sorrow, then, as the priest imposes the ashes on each penitent’s forehead – a form of sacramental.
The church also expects us to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and also all the Fridays of Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are also expected to fast. Fasting according to the church, means consuming only one full meal a day; two smaller meals that don’t together add up to a full meal also are allowed.
Why are ashes such an appropriate expression of penance?
Because they are “dirty.” They humble us by reminding us that however proud we may be of ourselves, our accomplishments, and our possessions, in the end (as the words of the Ash Wednesday rite recall), we are dirt, and to dirt we shall return (see Gen. 3:19).
At the same time, having dirty faces reminds us that sin is stains us, and we need to be cleansed of it through God’s grace (see Ps 51:3-5,9, 11-12).