Customs & Traditions of Ash Wednesday

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Customs & traditions of Ash Wednesday

At this time of year, many of us are quite familiar with the scene where the young and old, the rich and the poor stand waiting in long queue at the Church. And they may wait for hours, and some may even spare their lunch. No, the zeal is not for clinching a big deal. The reason is rather simple. All of them just want to 'get ashed'. For this is Ash Wednesday.

Getting ashed apart, the tradition is to pray, and go for fasting as a preparation for Lent. Both the Old Law and the New says that those who had repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Thus wearing sack cloth and sprinkling the head with ashes was an ancient sign of repentance. The Biblical custom for repentance was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. But the Bible does not specify the Ash Wednesday rites as such. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

In fact, the traditions of Ash Wednesday came up as a part of the Lenten customs during the late 5th century. Penitence and fasting
are two of the key distinctives of Lent. And thus also of the Ash Wednesday. It does not associate commemoration of any event. For, nothing special is known to have happened forty days before the crucifixion. So, the Day could only be said to indirectly commemorate a Christ since it is the beginning of preparation for the greater celebrations of Christ's saving work. Obviously the Bible makes no reference to this day.

Unlike the old days, we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day.

It is just an observance among the western churches. Ash Wednesday is a day of penance. The Church has never chosen to make it or any other specific day the definitive commemoration of the concept of repentance. Still it is a deacon. Some churches observe it with distribution of ashes, reading prayers of repentance, and with other services offered from the pulpit.

Even in ancient days, people marked times of fasting, prayer, repentance, and remorse by placing ashes on their foreheads. The custom was prevalent in early days of Judaism: as found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26.

This custom entered the church from Judaism. And is observed on Ash Wednesday, that marks the onset of a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.
At first only public penitence received the ashes. They were made to appear barefooted at the church and perform penances for their sins. Friends and relatives began to accompany them, perhaps in sympathy and in the knowledge that no man is free from sin, and gradually the ashes were given to the whole congregation.

On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into palm ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."In case of clerics it is upon the place of the tonsure.
The saying and the act are meant for reminding us that man is mortal. This means we are dust and it is dust to which we shall return.

The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present.

In the United States, besides the Roman Catholics some Episcopal Churches also observe Ash Wednesday with the distribution of ashes. In addition, prayers of repentance are read and exhortation denouncing sin, taken from chapter 28 or the Book of Deuteronomy, are delivered from the pulpit. The Psalm 51 is prayed and the litany of penitence in solidarity with those preparing for baptism or restoration to the church's fellowship. Other Protestant denominations also mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Churches do not, since the Great Lent begins on Monday. For all Christian Churches, however, Lent is a period of preparation. The culmination is Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and building to the joyous celebration of Easter.

Originally it was only the Roman Catholics who had the foreheads marked with the cross of palm ash. But now the imposition of ashes has made its way into the wider church and even the popular culture.

As the deacon sings "Earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God" the gateway to the pilgrimage floats open to the Lenten session of penitence. The session that tells us to take a relook at our past deeds and weed out the wrong ones by certain observances.

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