By Andrea Philips
First published on Return to Order
On Ash Wednesday Catholics proclaim their Faith in the public square as they go about marked with a black cross.
Still, as praiseworthy as it is for Catholics to uphold the feast of Ash Wednesday by making a point of receiving ashes, it can easily become merely a pious habit, “something we Catholics do.”
Yet, like everything in our Catholic Faith, the liturgical feast of Ash Wednesday and the custom of ashes has a rich history, deep meaning and rich symbolism.
The custom initiated back in the early Middle Ages when repentant public sinners submitted to forty days of penance. The bishop blessed the hairshirts, and the ashes which, after biblical penitential custom, were poured over the sinners’ heads. In time, all Christians whether public or private sinners, wished to benefit from the practice.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent symbolic of the forty days Our Lord fasted in the desert. Occuring forty six days before Easter, it is consequently moveable-as early as Februay 4 and as late as March 10.
The ashes applied to the forehead, made from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are blessed, perfumed with incense, and hydrated with a little holy water or oil as a binding agent. Thus treated, the ashes are considered a Sacramental.
Ash as a Sacramental
Though sacramentals do not ipso facto operate Grace as the sacraments, they are helpers to the sacraments in that they are visible, touchable, hearable signs that help predispose our souls to Grace.
Thus for example, when we enter a church,dip our finger in the fount and bless ourselves, we are making use of a sacramental, holy water, to place ourselves in a prayerful mode. With the right disposition, and a short prayer of contrition, holy water can even remit venial sin.
The Catholic Church is replete with sacramentals, holy objects, words and rituals that we can see, touch and hear to help convey to our spirit an attitude of openess to Grace.
The ash used on Ash Wednesday, accompanied by the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” places us in a disposition of penance and humility, which is the attitude needed for a fruitful, Grace-filled Lent.
Sacramentals are specially potent when well explained to children who are so visual and touch oriented. They are a powerful means to convey the unseen mysteries of our Faith to their young minds.
The Return to Order campaign is based on the award-winning book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society–Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go by John Horvat II. It addresses the growing alarm, confusion and frustration that so many Americans experience when seeing the nation fall into disorder and chaos.
This social decay manifests itself in many ways. It can be seen in the breakdown of the family and community. It can be experienced in the frenetic intemperance of hectic lifestyles, the frenzied activity of economic markets and the abuse of technology and social media. Above all, there is the abandonment of God and His law and the increasing public recognition of satanic acts, symbols and ideas.