By Sister Catherine Cleary, OSB
Our feelings surrounding Ash Wednesday often conjure up memories from childhood. Especially if you attended a public school and on a certain Wednesday in early spring you showed up not only late but with a black smudge on your forehead!
The kids knew from past years that it was something you had received in church. You sensed that they had a respect mixed with a lot of questions about what the black cross on your forehead meant.
And now as adults we ask, What is the meaning of the ashes on our forehead?
Our celebration of Ash Wednesday is a 4th century relic of the solemn ritual performed by the bishop with public penitents.
Whoever had committed a grave, public sin was dressed in penitential garb, bound to submit to public penance, and had their heads strewn with ashes at the beginning of Lent.
The public penance consisted primarily of exclusion from the community’s Eucharistic services, but also included the practice of works of satisfaction, prayer, mortification and fasting.
So the tradition of receiving ashes (gathered from burning last year’s palms) and of making resolutions by adding prayer, fasting and almsgiving to our daily life is but a shadow of the early church’s Lenten practices.
So why do we continue to do it today?
To develop within our hearts a greater awareness of the presence of God, a deeper mindfulness that we are members of God’s family and a burning eagerness to become one in the Body of Christ.