BLESSING: This 2012 file photo shows the congregation gathered at La Tortuga RC Church receives ashes on Ash Wednesday. —Photo: Innis Francis

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Essence of ashes

By Kimoy Leon Sing

As the revelry and fun of Carnival Monday and Tuesday fade, into the background; the Lenten season begins today, Ash Wednesday.

"It is a period of 40 days culminating in the Easter Triduum (three days) of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Gloria Saturday. The Lenten season is a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter," said Editor of the Catholic News, June Johnston.

A time which holds extreme significance for the Christian community, the day itself gets its name from the ashes which are distributed at mass in Catholic churches. These ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the church which aids to develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.

Johnston said, "Ashes are distributed on Ash Wednesday as a sign of repentance. In the Old Testament the Israelites put on "sackcloth and ashes" as a sign of repentance and sorrow for sin. The ashes come from burnt palm leaves that were blessed and used the previous year on Palm Sunday."

These ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross which represents for members of the Christian community, freedom from sin won through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Johnston said.

According to www.religionfacts.com members of the clergy receive ashes from fellow clergy, usually from the most senior member of the clergy present. Monks receive their mark of ashes on their tonsure (shaven crown or patch of hair on the head) rather than their foreheads. Priests then place ashes on all willing members of the congregation, usually in the shape of a cross.

The website went on further to state that at some churches, believers wash the ashes off before leaving the church to symbolise that they have been cleansed of their sins. In other churches, participants leave the ashes on when they leave, thereby "carrying the cross out into the world."

"When the priest/deacon/ layminister makes the sign of the cross on one's forehead the prayer or words said are "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" or "Repent and believe the Gospel". One of the prayers that can be said or sung during the distribution of ashes explains the significance of Ash Wednesday says: Let us change our garments to sackcloth and ashes, let us fast and weep before the Lord, that our God rich in mercy might forgive us our sins" she said.

According to http://www.churchyear.net/ashwednesday.html originally, Ash Wednesday was the day when public penitents in Rome began their penance. In the early days of the Church, penance was often public and protracted. It was only later that private confession and penance began, for pastoral reasons. When public penance gradually fell into disuse by the 8th century, Ash Wednesday became a day of penitence and fasting for all members of the Church.

Today, Ash Wednesday is a universal fast day in the Catholic church. Many Western Protestant churches also observe Ash Wednesday, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Methodists.

Johnston said, "It is traditional for people at the start of Lent to decide to "give up" something such as food, alcohol, cigarettes, sweets or some bad habit that they struggle with as a sign of their penitence, their desire to be more like Jesus who was totally dependent on his Father. The "goal" of the Christian is to become more like Jesus — to truly be his body in our world — and many things distract us from this "goal". Lent is a period of focus, trying to identify what we as individuals and as members of the Christian community needs to change or to give up so that Jesus' presence in our world can become more evident in our day-to-day lives."

Johnston said, "Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence from meat for Catholics in good health up to the age of 60. Fasting has much significance but in essence is to bring to remembrance that Jesus fasted in the desert before he began his ministry. The gospel for the first Sunday of Lent tells of Jesus' fasting for forty days and the temptations he underwent.

"The heart of our faith is that we believe in a God who became man, suffered and died for us on a cross that we might live forever as God is forever. Easter celebrates this belief and Lent is the period of preparation for this great feast of our faith," she added.

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