Today is Ash Wednesday – named for the ashes distributed at Mass. The ashes may be made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday. The congregation come forward one by one: the priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and makes the Sing of the Cross on each person’s forehead, and says, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (or a variation on those words).
A Day of Repentance:
The distribution of ashes reminds us that no-one gets out of life alive, and calls us to repentance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness – an echo of the ancient practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes to show penitence.
Fasting and Abstinence:
The Church emphasises the penitential nature of Ash Wednesday by calling us to fast and abstain from meat. Catholics who are over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 must fast, which means that they can eat only one complete meal and two smaller ones during the day, with no food in between. Catholics who are over the age of 14 must refrain from eating any meat, or any food made with meat.
Goals for Lent:
This fasting and abstinence is not simply a form of penance; it is the start of the training season of Lent, when we set specific spiritual goals, decide how to pursue them, and work on them for nearly seven weeks. What are we giving up? What are we taking up? How will we use our Lenten observance to get closer to God through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, devotional reading, and the other spiritual and corporeal works of mercy?
Help Your Children Make Meaningful Lent Promises:
Ash Wednesday is a good time to talk to your children about Lent promises. Remind your children that if they make a promise like giving up broad beans when they don’t like broad beans in the first place, then their promise is not very meaningful, and won’t have much effect. Promising to give up playing with any toys is a huge promise, and will probably be broken. Giving up something they are not allowed to do, like promising not to fight with their brother ‘until after Easter,’ misses the point big time! Giving up their weekly sweet treat and donating the money to a charity that helps feed hungry children is a good Lent promise. Giving up Saturday morning cartoons to help the elderly neighbour next door work in the garden is another one.