Ash Wednesday is like no other liturgical action throughout the Church year. Unlike the usual smiles and Alleluia’s of daily mass at Saint Paul’s, Ash Wednesday’s mass is a much more solemn ritual. In our Communion-like procession, we come forward and receive ashes on our forehead in the shape of a cross. Seems like a lot of significance. Why ashes? Why in the shape of a cross? And why on our FACE? #if people didn’t already know I was Catholic…..
Ashes symbolize two main things in the Old Testament.
Death and repentance. Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to this. Ashes are to remind us of this impending death, which may come sooner or later, but it will come. So the solemn ritual is starting to make a little more sense…..
But seriously, ashes ARE a solemn sign, but that is because they signify the biggest tragedy of our lives: our sin against God. In this public sign we are recognizing our private weaknesses, our admission of guilt, and there is beauty in that. Never deny yourself the grace of an honest confession. Ashes are just a sign of our sorrow and a plea for God’s mercy and compassion, pardon and forgiveness. But inside the confessional we encounter the freedom the world is looking for; we encounter Christ. Run to confession.
We are sinners, but when we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness. God honors this request. We know he does, because he says so, and we can trust him.
So as you wait in line and are tempted to look at how everyone else’s ashes look, hoping for the perfect cross shape for your own, instead have this line memorized and repeat it with fervor.
A pure heart create for me, oh God. Put a steadfast spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
Remember that God honors your requests according to the degree of the sincerity of your heart. Ask God this Ash Wednesday to increase your desire for a deeper relationship with Him; to WANT to want Him more. Then get your perfectly cross shaped Ashes at one of the St. Paul’s Masses (7am, 12pm, 5pm, 7pm, or 9pm) and entrust your heart to the living God.
~Kristin Fimian, UW-Madison FOCUS Missionary