(From the St. Isidore Parish Stewardship series)

What is the significance of Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday comes from an ancient tradition of covering penitents with ashes from head to toe?

In the ancient Church, baptism was a sacrament for adults. It wasn't until centuries later that baptism evolved in the Church as an infant sacrament. Those preparing for baptism (catechumens) used ashes as a symbol to remind them of their own sinfulness and to focus on the areas in their life that needed conversion.

When I was a parish secretary, the busiest telephone day of the year was not Christmas Eve, but Ash Wednesday! Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday was as faithful as Christmas. What is it about Ash Wednesday that draws Catholics so mystically to church? I suspect, like the catechumens and the ancient Church penitents, we all need to "retreat" once in a while and remind ourselves of our own sinfulness, of our dependence on God, to remember we were created from nothing and that we will return to nothing.

Originally, Lent was a retreat before baptism. Since baptism was an adult sacrament, much preparation time was devoted to catechesis, particularly in later centuries, to the 40 days before Easter. It was also time for those already baptized to support the catechumens on their journey through faith.

As the sacrament of baptism evolved to an infant sacrament, Lent became more of a time for penance and mortification. The Second Vatican Council, in revising the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (the RCIA), has restored the baptismal character of Lent. Lent has become once again a "retreat before Baptism." Parishes may now use the words "Turn away from sin and remain faithful to the Gospel" instead of "Thou are dust and into dust thou will return."

When we are marked this Ash Wednesday, let us remember that Lent is a retreat before baptism, a time of conversion; and for those of us already baptized, it is a retreat to remember our baptismal inheritance, and for a deeper conversion. Let us make the words "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" words, not only for Lent, but a Lenten mantra (repetitive prayer) that will bring us to a deeper, more intimate relationship with God all year long.

Just like we can fully celebrate Christ's presence at Mass on Sundays only if we have included Him in our lives during the week, so we can only fully celebrate Easter if we have walked the Lenten journey with Him to a deeper, more intimate relationship.

FYI: ASH WEDNESDAY and GOOD FRIDAY are days of fast and abstinence (one full meal, two lesser meals, no meat, no eating between meals). The law on fasting obliges all persons who are between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. All Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence (no meat or meat products.)

From the "Did You Know" Parish Stewardship series, a collaboration of Fr. Manuel Soria and Monique Figlietti, Chair of Stewardship Ministry in response to a request from the Pastoral Council.