START OF LENT: Many who attend church today will receive ashes.

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A time to reflect

By Verdel Bishop

Following weeks of Carnival festivities it’s time to cool down. Today is Ash Wednesday — a day of significance for many. Whether that significance means cooling down on one of the island’s beautiful beaches or simply staying home in a bid to ease sore and aching bodies after two days of Carnival revelry, one thing is certain — thousands of devout Roman Catholics will be attending Ash Wednesday services held at various parishes throughout the country. 

Ash Wednesday traditionally signifies a day when Christian families go to church, to mark the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting in preparation for Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which redemption is attained. 

The ashes received at the various services are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and help to develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice. The ashes are blessed with holy water and scented by exposure to incense. The ash is sometimes mixed with anointing oil, which ensures that the ashes make a good mark. The use of anointing oil also reminds the church-goer of God’s blessings and of the anointing that took place at their baptism.

Why ash on Ash Wednesday? While the ash symbolises penance and contrition, it is also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the church calls on Christians to seek mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance. 

According to Monsignor Cuthbert Alexander from St Peters Parish in Carenage, ashes are placed on foreheads on Ash Wednesday for two reasons: a personal act of remembrance and as a sign or a witness for others. The ashes come from the burning of palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, at the beginning of holy week and, therefore and focuses on the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus for us.

“On this first day of Lent, we begin a journey of renewal — from death to life. This is a joyful season. We will make sacrifices, in order to try to let God reform our desiring, but this is a time for God to be generous to us. 

“When the ashes are placed on our foreheads, the minister says one of two formulas to help us remember who we are and the mission to which we are sent: “Repent and believe in the Gospel. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

“We are reminded that we are creatures and that our lives were given to us. But, we are also reminded that our lasting home is in eternity, with God. We are reminded of our call to turn away from sin and to believe the Good News of our salvation in Jesus. This is a joyful reminder. It challenges us, for sure, but reminds us of why we want to turn from sin,” Alexander said. 

He continued, “Finally, we wear our ashes as a sign. It is not a boastful sign through which I say, “Look at me and see how holy I am.” No, it is much more like, “I’m willing to wear this sign in the world and say that I’ve been reminded of where I come from and where I am going. And, I’ve heard the call to turn away from a life of sin and to give my life to living the Gospel of Jesus.” 

“Yet even now, says the Lord return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; render your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment”, Alexander said. 

Devout Roman Catholic, Nefatidi La Forest said Ash Wednesday is an important date on her calendar. She said the day holds spiritual and personal significance. “It is a very important day; it is marked on my calendar. It marks the start of a time of prayer — a time to get closer to God. It reminds me that we are sinners. 

“We are not perfect but we have somebody that is bigger than us and willing to forgive us and if He is willing to forgive us. It reminds me of how insignificant the things we place as important is,” La Forest said.  

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