Ash Wednesday is a day unlike any other, marking the start of the forty-day-long Lent and devoted to the preparation for Christ’s Resurrection. It is a day of penance, reflection, and fasting. The symbolic sprinkling of ashes or marking of one’s forehead with ash in the shape of a cross, serves to remind us of the humility which we should practice in our hearts and in our minds, and the sacrifices we should be ready to make for the less fortunate in our lives. Whether it be financially, physically, mentally, or emotionally, there are plenty of people surrounding us on a daily basis who are underprivileged or abused in any one or more of those areas. Ash Wednesday helps to remind us to help those less fortunate, because in the end, as the saying goes, “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return”.
Ash Wednesday originated with the early Christians of ages past. Those who were found guilty of many various sins were forced to repent in public. This manifested itself in the following ways: a Bishop would bless and sprinkle with ashes the attire the penitents were to wear for the duration of the forty days of reparation for wrong. While the faithful of the church recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents themselves were forced out of the church, in resemblance to the way Adam was forced out of the Garden of Eden for his unforgivable sins. The penitents could re-enter the church only after their forty days of atonement were over and after having received sacramental absolution. Over time, not only well and widely-known penitents came to church to receive ashes, but other Christians as well, in need of forgiveness and mercy for their sins.
One would ask: how are the ashes themselves acquired for this day? The ashes are obtained from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which are burned, christened with Holy Water, and exposed to incense which gives them a surreal scent. Serving as a symbol of repentance and sorrow, the ashes themselves are also a symbol of God himself, his mercy and pardon given to those who truly feel remorse for their sins and faults. Ash Wednesday, therefore, primarily serves as the start of a time in which people should stop in their influx of daily activities and take the time to reflect, pray, and atone.
Countless Christians in Poland, as well as in America, make the time to devote to this particular holiday. Not only is it a religious holiday, for many it also possesses a cleansing quality. On Ash Wednesday many individuals take the time to reflect upon their lives and go through a “self-examination” – to compare and contrast the pros and cons of their lifestyles, their choices and decisions, the impact their have directly on their loved ones, friends, surroundings and environment. It helps to be able, at least once a year, to come to terms with oneself, to take the time to repent and make changes for the better in one’s life – and we all know how tough that comes to be in the rush and bustle of today’s world. Nevertheless, many make the time and over the duration of Lent learn to be more appreciative, tolerant, kind, wise, and modest.