Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy. And Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lent fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle (Thomas Merton).
On Ash Wednesday small children are thrilled to receive ashes. We can tell them simply that ashes are placed on our foreheads to remind us that someday we will die and go home to heaven. For older children we need to go more deeply into the origin and significance of the day.
The season of holy Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a solemn day of fast and abstinence. The day receives its special name from the blessing and imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. “Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes, made by burning palms blessed the previous Palm Sunday, symbolize the transience of our earthly status. The body must fall temporarily into dust. This fact should serve as a challenge to spiritual accomplishments. Through grace we were “buried” in Christ that we may rise with him and “live unto God.” We explain ashes with the “seed” idea. “They are not a sign of death,” Fr. Merton says, “but a promise of life.”
Ashes are a sacramental. Their reception with humility is a sign of penance. We wear them publicly to acknowledge our need to atone for our sins. “God desires not the death of the sinner.” He is moved by our humiliation, and his justice is appeased by satisfaction.
The rite for the blessing and imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday follows the homily at Mass. It begins with an invitation to prayer, whereupon the priest continues with the Blessing of Ashes in which he asks God in his mercy to hear us because of his love for us; to bless the ashes which will mark our foreheads to remind us that we are only dust and will someday return to dust. He asks that we be faithful to the Lenten observance and thus be able to celebrate with clean hearts the paschal mystery.
The priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water in silence. He then imposes the ashes on those who come forward and stand in front of him. To each he says:
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
“Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” (Cf. Gen. 3:19)
This solemn blessing and sprinkling with holy water obviously is more than a reminder of death — it is rather a pledge and reminder of resurrection. The whole rite would be sheer nonsense if dust and ashes were our final lot.
You may bring home from church ashes for baby and grandparents. If this is not customary or if you live too far from church or the children have colds, try burning the piece of palm remaining on your crucifix. Children are always willing to help burn things! An odd acrid smell, burnt palm soon fills a room with faint smoke — another sign for Ash Wednesday.
The keynote of the Lenten forty day renewal is given by the divine Retreat Master in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel:
When you fast, do not put on a gloomy look, like the hypocrites, for they neglect their personal appearance to let people see that they are fasting. I tell you, that is all the reward they will get.But when you fast, perfume your hair and wash your face, so that no one may see that you are fasting, except your Father who is unseen, and your Father who sees what is secret, will reward you.
Do not store up riches on earth, where moths and rust destroy them, and where thieves break in and steal them, but store up your riches in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and where thieves cannot break in and steal them. For wherever your treasure is, your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:16-21).