Electronic Prayer Book

Ash Wednesday


The Church, our Mother, has put off her crown
and put on sack cloth, covering her head with ashes; her features drawn with fasting,
she unites her penance to the expiatory merits of the Blood of our Redeemer to plead for divine mercy.

The Church begins Lent by sprinkling ashes on her faithful members as a reminder of their mortal state and of the necessity of penance.

In the early Church the public, collective penance to be undergone by those guilty of serious, public sins was arranged in conjunction with the preparation of the Catechumens for baptism at Easter. At the beginning of Lent the bishop used to bless the sackcloth and ashes to be worn by the penitents; for forty days they expiated their sins in sackcloth and ashes awaiting sacramental reconciliation on Maundy Thursday. The imposition of ashes, as we know it today, is an extension and a transposition of the former public penance; what applied originally to a single category of the faithful with diminished severity is now extended to all without exception. Urban VI, at the council of Beneventum in 1091, ordered that ashes should received by all the faithful.

There is an expiatory side in the penitential effort which, under the Church’s guidance, we now begin, but the greater emphasis will always be on the divine mercy. Readings, chants and prayers, both in the ceremony of the imposition of ashes and in the Mass which follows, cause us to implore this mercy with the certainty of our prayer being heard. Throughout Lent our effort will continue as we look forward to Easter and the joy of the redeemed.