Ash Wednesday begins the penitential season of Lent – 40 days of fasting, praying and alms-giving culminating in the celebration of Easter. You can spot the Catholic on Ash Wednesday by the blackish smudge on their forehead.
The signing of the forehead with ashes is another strong, Catholic symbol. As a child, the ritual terrified me. We solemnly processed to the front of the church where the priest was waiting with a bowl of ashes – made by burning the previous year`s Palm Sunday branches. He dipped his thumb in the black soot, and traced a cross on your forehead. The excess specks fluttered across your eyes, cheeks and nose while he intoned `Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return`. The thought scared me too much to worry about the fact that I wasn`t a man!
Today, the more inclusive `Remember that you are dust…` is used. Sometimes the words are replaced with `Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel` or something similar. While a good sentiment, it seems tame and sterile compared to the reminder of mortality that had us shaking in our boots.
A good Catholic does not wipe off the ashes before leaving church. You are meant to wear them all day as a proud sign of your faith. Our Ash Wednesday mass is always in the evening. The darkness of the late winter night make the ashes difficult to see – as do strategically placed hair bangs, hoods or scarfs. 😉