A Day of Identity
Asking a group of people to name the Holy Days of Obligations for Catholics invariably brings the response ‘Ash Wednesday’. It isn’t a day of obligation for Catholics; in fact the ashes are often received outside Mass. However, for Catholics Ash Wednesday is an identity day. People attend Church services and receive the ashes. Then they may spend the rest of the day with others whispering to them that they ‘have a mark on their forehead’. Walking the streets of towns and cities you can spot many Christians on this day because they have a physical mark. In part, when we wear the Ashes we are saying yes, we are part of the body of Christ.
At Baptism we reject sin and profess our faith. This is reflected in one of the common phrases used at the imposition of the ashes “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Each and every day we are called to conversion, to move away from those things that prevent us loving fully, to move away from sin towards the best self we can be, the self that God sees in us and wants for us. Therefore the ashes and our baptism are linked. With the full and busy lives we lead it is easy to forget who we are before God. Time is precious and it is simple to fall into ways of thinking and living that do not lead to holiness. The ashes remind us that we are people on a journey with God who know we need to be less selfish, less consumption driven, more aware of others. Lent focuses our effort on this task as we move towards the great celebration of Baptism, the Easter Vigil. “We dirty our faces on Ash Wednesday and are cleansed in the waters of the font”.
The first recorded Ash Wednesday liturgy occurred in 960. By the beginning of the 11th century it was common practice for members of church communities to receive ashes on their forehead during a liturgy on the Wednesday before Lent. Later, after the use of ashes on that Wednesday had become general practice the day became known as Ash Wednesday.
Originally ashes were sprinkled on the heads of males while the sign of the cross was made with ashes on women’s foreheads. At some stage it became practice to use the signing of the cross with men as well.
In Aotearoa New Zealand abstinence from meat, and fasting, are observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means that we must reduce the quantity of food eaten. Those under 18 and over 60 are not obliged to fast.
The three practices of Lent: Praying, Fasting, Almsgiving (supporting the less fortunate) are practical ways of building positive habits and reminders that Lent is a particular season for ‘creating new habits’.
Fasting on days other than Ash Wednesday and Good Friday does not have to be about giving up food. In this technology dominated world it might be fasting from social media for the day, or limiting the number of times we browse, it might be about being aware of our attitudes to others, fasting from gossip or….