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Ashes to ashes

One of the most significant days in the Catholic calendar, Ash Wednesday, which will be observed by Catholics today, marks the beginning of the Lenten season. NT BUZZ details more about its symbolism


Lent is observed as the season in preparation of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is seen as an opportunity to change one’s self for good.

It marks the 40-day period during which Catholics abstain from rich food and daily comforts, and seek repentance for their wrong doings through prayer and personal and communal confession.

The season begins with Ash Wednesday, which will be observed the world over today, and ends on Easter Sunday.

Indeed, the name Ash Wednesday is derived from the placement of ashes on one’s forehead marked in a visible cross. This is done by a priest during Holy Mass.

The tradition of applying ash onto one’s forehead dates back to the Biblical times. “In the Old Testament there was a practice in which people would do penance by wearing a sack cloth and put ashes on their body therefore externally showcasing the repentance they’re going through,” says parish priest, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, Panaji, Fr Walter de Sa.

The ashes used are burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday. “These ashes are maintained, burned and reduced to powder and they are blessed again on Ash Wednesday during the mass,” informs Fr de Sa.

While the ashes symbolise repentance and abstinence they are also a symbolic reminder that God has made humans out of dust, says Fr de Sa. “Ashes remind us that we are nothing, it is out nothingness before God, so it symbolises that we can be reduced to ashes and we will return to dust hence the priest when he applies ashes to the forehead says: “Remember man, you are dust and unto dust you will return”,” he says.

However, there is no particular time to keep the ash onto one’s forehead says Fr de Sa. “You can wash your face as and when you need, otherwise you can display the ashes for the whole day, it is up to you,” he says adding that the application of ashes is symbolically done during mass to acknowledge the need to do penance and fortification during the season of Lent.

Catholics mark the day by fasting, alms giving and prayer in order to seek God’s mercy. “With Ash Wednesday we begin the season of Lent during which we abstain from our daily comforts to seek God’s mercy this is called metanoia as that’s the objective of Lent,” says Fr de Sa. “Metanoia means transformation of ourselves because we are prone to go away from God by committing a sin.”

Two laws are laid down by the church during Lenten period. Abstinence from eating meat and the law of fasting, these laws are to be followed specially on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The law of abstinence is applicable to those who have completed 14 years of age and the law of fasting is applicable to those who have completed 18 years and have not completed 59 years. “Those who are sick, old and weak are exempted from fasting. This law is to be rigorously observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,” says Fr de Sa.

 In fact, one should abstain from meat on all Fridays during Lent, however, if that cannot be done then one must recite the rosary, attend mass, pray at the blessed sacrament, and perform an act of charity by visiting the sick, the old or an orphanage says Fr de Sa.

Though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, all Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on this day to commemorate the beginning of Lent.

“During Lent the best way to be closer to Jesus and participate in the passion of Jesus is through participation in mass, spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament and participating in the way of the cross,” says Fr de Sa.

The practice of attending Mass on Ash Wednesday is strong in the Goan community including the youth, he says. “Nowadays colleges have a special service for students during which we read the Word of God, say a prayer and bless the ashes and later apply it to the students. Students do come either for Mass in college or go to their respective parish as this practice is still symbolically strong,” he adds.

And indeed, many youth do keep the day holy, by attending Mass, abstaining from meat and fasting. “I may not be able to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday as I’m working. However, during college days if we could not attend Mass in our parish, there was a special service held on the occasion of Ash Wednesday in college. But every year on Ash Wednesday my family does not cook non-vegetarian food,” says Joanna D’Souza from Calangute.

Fiona D’Souza from Merces will also be abstaining from the consumption of meat. She says that Ash Wednesday is day of contemplating one’s transgressions. “Ash Wednesday is not just a period of abstinence. It is that period where you pray for others and you make sacrifices where you forgive others who you were angry with. The ashes symbolise our grief for the things we’ve done wrong and the resulting divisions it brings,” she says.

Echoing a similar statement is Celeste Fernandes who states that the day is a time of self reflection. “Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality. We are bound to return to dust, and hence we should mend our ways and be kind to people which gets us closer to God,” she says.

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