“For dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.”
1. Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday in the Latin Church is the day for being reminded of and contemplating our mortality, of which Ecclesiasticus reminds us:
“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation commeth…”
Christians of the true Faith must always keep their eyes on the world to come, for the things of this world as St. Paul says are transient. This is one of the reasons why we use ashes on this most Solemn of days: to remind us that we are mortal, and are subject to the rot and decay of our culture now desperately tries to emphasize away but we as Catholics solely depend on Jesus to overcome this fate.
The ashes are made by the burning of palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. The ashes are made from burnt palms shows us the link between victory, and penance and mortification which ashes have always symbolized:
“Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.” Job 42:6
The priest, after burning the palms shall bless the ashes and sprinkle holy water and incense on them. He will then put ashes on his own forehead and then the congregation saying: Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris. For those attending the Mass of Paul VI will probably hear the priest say: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
Once we leave church, we are to leave the ashes on our foreheads until they wear off naturally from the course of our days. Ashes are a public witness to those things our society does not wish to embrace: reality of death, penance for sin, and the hope of the resurrection.
Most importantly, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence, a day to recall the profound truths of our existence.
Suggested reading: “Meditation on Death” Chapter 23 of “The Imitation of Christ” By Thomas á Kempis.