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Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a forty (40) day period of fasting, praying, and abstinence. It is also known as the Day of Ashes. It is called so because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.

The name Day of Ashes comes from "Dies Cinerum" in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The celebration originated by the Roman Catholics around the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of St Gregory the Great who ruled the Church from 590 AD - 604 AD.

In the Old Testament, ashes were used for two purposes

1. as a sign of humility and mortality.

2. as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin.

The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday was taken from the Old Testament custom.

Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.

Originally, the use of ashes as a sign of penance was a matter of private devotion. Later, it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him or her.

Putting a 'cross' mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil

and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).

"And the LORD said to one of the four cherubim, 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)

The early Church Fathers seized on this connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries as was documented from the second century on was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.

So on Ash Wednesday, during the signing of the cross of the ash on our forehead, the priest says "remember you are dust and dust you shall return", Gen 3:19 or "repent and believe in the Gospel". Mark 1:15".

May our Lenten Season bear fruits. Amen


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