Repentance of sins, throughout the Bible and for many many Centuries, was shown by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have ashes put on their forehead – a practice that has been going on for about a thousand years. As a visual sign of repentance of sins and a rededication to their faith. It is common for the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to be used to make the ashes.
The development of Ash Wednesday is closely tied to the development of Lent. The earliest observances of Easter were preceded by a few days of fasting, the actual number of days varying from place to place. Quite independently of the pre-Easter fast, there grew up in Egypt in the late 4th century a custom of keeping a 40 day fast. This originally had nothing to do with Easter and was in imitation of Jesus’ own fasting in the wilderness. Jesus did not do this annually but only once after his baptism and before the beginning of his ministry. But Centuries ago, within the Church, the desire to prepare thoroughly for the Easter period met up with the observance of Lent to produce the Lenten season as we now have it.
A 12th-century missal, a ritual book with instructions on how to celebrate the Eucharist, indicates the words used when putting ashes on the forehead were: “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In the 1960’s Jesus words from the beginning of his public ministry were added, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
It is a calling of the faithful to live their Christian lives more deeply. The words from Genesis remind Christians that life is short and death imminent, urging focus on what is essential. The words of Jesus are a direct call to follow him by turning away from sin and doing what he says.
So we are invited to use this period of 40 days to deepen our faith and commitment to the way of God in Christ. So the Ashes are an ancient symbol of penitence and humility. Today the fast begins, where we eat less and give up certain foods for 40 days, and set a little extra time aside to spend with the Lord in Prayer. In a spirit of true Christian obedience let us keep this Ash Wednesday.