Let us pray
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God,
who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging out wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
On Ash Wednesday ashes are “imposed” in a solemn ritual at masses across the world. The ceremony is unlike any liturgical action performed throughout the rest of the Church’s year.
The ashes are made from the palm crosses that were blessed and handed out the previous Palm Sunday. They are collected and burned and the remains are ground up into powder. I make my own each year.
During the Mass the ashes are blessed by the priest before they are “imposed”. In a procession people step forward and the priest puts the ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross, saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is taken from Genesis 3 v 19.
What does the ash symbolise?
1. Death: We are reminded of our mortality, for when we die our bodies decompose, or “they return to dust”. So we hear Abraham say to God “I am but dust and ashes” in Genesis 18:27. Whether death is just around the corner or many years hence, one thing is certain, we are going to die! So on Ash Wednesday we are asked to face our mortality, but not in a morbid and hopeless way, but in the faith of Christ crucified – which is why the ashes are imposed with a cross. Christ has died and redeemed us so that we have real hope. Yes we will die, but by the grace of Christ we can live beyond this death.
Indeed death is coming and we need to be prepared for it. Let death not catch any of us unprepared! Let us be prepared by living God’s ways.
2. Repentance: When the prophet Jonah warned the Ninevites that God was going to visit judgement upon them for their wickedness (their depravity and corruption) the people of Ninevah covered themselves with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance – they showed visibly that they were turning away from their evil ways.
So ashes are a plea to God for mercy, pardon and forgiveness. And they are also a public confession of our sin. Other people can see that we admit our sinfulness publicly, but also crucially that we bring them to the cross of Christ. We are sorry for our sins but we know they can only be forgiven through the cross of Christ, the grace He won for us, once for all.
(Suggestion: If someone comments on your ashes, use the opportunity to explain to them something of your faith and why you do it.)
So we begin Lent by publicly saying sorry for our sins, and that we want to use Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts and control our desires – and thus to grow in holiness, and be better prepared to celebrate Easter with joy filling our hearts.
Lord, we beseech thee, make in us new and contrite hearts!
The Prayer of the Great Sinner
Miserere mei, Deus
HAVE mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness : according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
2. Wash me throughly from my wickedness : and cleanse me from my sin.
3. For I acknowledge my faults : and my sin is ever before me.
4. Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight : that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
5. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness : and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
6. But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
7. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean : thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness : that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9. Turn thy face from my sins : and put out all my misdeeds.
10. Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me.
11. Cast me not away from thy presence : and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12. O give me the comfort of thy help again : and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
13. Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked : and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou that art the God of my health : and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
15. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord : and my mouth shall shew thy praise.
16. For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee : but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
17. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit : a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
18. O be favourable and gracious unto Sion : build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations : then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.
Psalm 51 (or psalm 50 in the Greek Bible) is the prayer of a murderer and adulterer. It is the psalm that is known as The miserere, from the Latin (Have mercy). King David, the great sinner, prays for God's mercy and forgiveness. He had committed adultery and then covered it up with murder. How sinful he felt and how much he knew he needed God's mercy!
This is a good psalm to pray as a penance after making our confession. It can be added to whatever the priest asks us to do as penance. After all, the penance given is only the beginning of the penance required of us for our sins.
We do not know how sinful we are by comparing our conduct with the moral law; we know how sinful we are by drawing close to God who is all-holy. This was the experience of the prophet Isaiah in vision, and also St Peter after the miraculous catch. So also for us. During Lent as we become more attentive to God's word in the Scriptures and in His Saints, as we practice prayer with greater diligence, as we give ourselves in charity to our neighbour and as we make personal and bodily sacrifices for the love of God we draw closer to God and thus also realise the depth of our sin. This psalm is not just for the murderer and adulterer but for us all! And a psalm especially for Lent.
Perhaps you can pray this psalm before or after Mass when we come into the very presence of Christ our God in the Eucharist? And one verse in particular might be worth memorising as a prayer for our keeping of Lent:
"Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me."
TODAY IS A DAY OF FASTING AND ABSTINENCE
The minimum is to eat only 1 normal meal and 2 small collations (less than half the normal meal), and to abstain from all meat. This minimum fast does not restrict the amount of liquids we drink. However we should not drink milk shakes, smoothies, protein drinks in addition to the meals stated above!
This is the minimum and all the faithful may prudently do more than this, remembering that any pride about a spiritual exercise nullifies the spiritual fruit we may gain from doing it.
Also remember we fast because we love to feast! Food is good and not evil.
Fr Ian is a catholic priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England. He is by papal dispensation married. He lives in a former convent with his wife and children in Devon, near the sea.