>> Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Great Lenten Fast. Since this is a time of prayer and penance for the remission of sin we begin by remembering who we really are with the Biblical verse Genesis 3:19 when God spoke to Adam after the Fall “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou was taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.” It is with great humility that we should remember these words and wander into the dessert where we should leave our pride so that we may kneel at the foot of the Cross with Mary Magdalen with true sorrow for our sins for it is our sins that crucified Our Lord.
Michaelangelo's Jonah in the Sistine Chapel
On Ash Wednesday we think back to the days of the Prophet Jonas (Jonah). When God told him to go to Ninive Jonah fled in weakness and fear from His Face. As a result God had Jonah swallowed up by a great fish. “And Jonas prayed to the Lord his God out of the belly of the fish. And he said: I cried out of my affliction to the Lord and he heard me: I cried out of the belly of hell and thou hast heard my voice” (Jonas 2:2-3). Henceforth the great fish spewed the Prophet upon the banks of Ninive, where the voice of God again spoke and told him to go forth into Ninive and preach. This time Jonas obeyed and he cried out “Yet forty days, and Ninive shall be destroyed. And the men of Ninive believed in God: and they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least. And the word came to the king of Ninive; and he rose up out of his throne, and cast away his robe from him and was clothed in sackcloth and sat in ashes.” (Jonas 3:4-6)
Seven Penitential Psalms
In the early days of the Church those Christians who were guilty of grave faults had to go through public penance for the remission of their sins. They would wear blessed sackcloth and have the sign of ashes upon their foreheads. The ashes were (and still are) made from the palms used on the previous Palm Sunday. “Then while the Faithful were singing the Seven Penitential Psalms [Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142], the penitents were expelled from the holy place on account of their sins, just as Adam was driven out of paradise because of his disobedience.” (St. Andrew Missal) In 1091, the Holy Father extended the use of ashes to the Faithful as well.
The Church today uses ashes to remind us that one day each and every one of us will end up where mankind began: “Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” with the sign of the cross imprinted on our forehead as a visible sign that we are sinners and are in need of both repentance and redemption.
“Thus saith the Lord: Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil.” Joel 2:12-13