Ash Wednesday: The Beauty of Ashes

Photo: OC-Travel
"Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." 

The liturgical rites of the Church are rich with beauty, symbolism and meaning.  Ash Wednesday, the day upon which the faithful are signed with blessed ashes, was called by early writers, Caput Jejunii, or, the beginning of the fast.  The ashes used for the ceremony are procured by the burning of the blessed palms of the previous Palm Sunday.

While these days many big parishes (and busy pastors) simply buy packaged ashes from their local church supply goods store, which is fine, I advocate a more eschatological option -- that of making your own, as seen above. 

The circumstance of ashes and the act of making them contains beautiful symbolism, reminding us that we cannot bear the palm of victory over Satan, sin, and death unless by the practice of humility and mortification during life, and by paying the debt of sin by giving up our bodies to the dust at the close of our earthly existence.

The form of blessing the ashes, like all other ceremonies of our holy religion, is beautiful and expressive.  The use of ashes, especially the sprinkling of ashes on the head as a sign of humiliation and sorrow, dates back to early Biblical times.  King David, the model of pentitents, says: "I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping."

During the distribution of ashes certain antiphons from the Scriptures and other sources, which are calculated to awaken a spirit of penance, are sung in Latin (at least in such churches as have a choir capable of singing them; and it is greatly to be regretted that, owing to circumstances, many churches have not such trained singers).

When this part of the ceremony concludes, the priest returns to the altar and recites the following beautiful prayer: "Grant us, O Lord, to begin our Christian warfare with holy fasts; that as we are about to fight against the spirits of wickedness, we may be defended by the aid of self-denial.  Through Christ Our Lord.  Amen."

The celebration of the Mass then follows.  The leftover ashes are to be put in the sacrarium or place where things that are blessed and can no longer be used are disposed of (such as the water used in baptism, etc).

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