The Truth about the Ashes

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Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

 By: Board of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus

This Wednesday, March 1, a curious sight will return to Georgetown’s campus as many, young and old, walk their daily routes with crosses of ashes marked across their foreheads.

To the outside observer, this occurrence might seem a bit odd, but to a Roman Catholic, the practice presents a different meaning, denoting that Ash Wednesday has arrived, and with it, the season of Lent leading to the Easter holiday.

Look below to find answers to important questions about Ash Wednesday presented by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus.

Do you have to go to mass?

The first question that might arise for a Catholic on Ash Wednesday might be: “Is this a holy day of obligation?”

The answer to that question is no, however, it is recommended that one make an effort to attend a mass on this day, and receive their ashes.

On campus, traditional masses with a distribution of ashes will be held in Dahlgren Chapel at 12:10 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. with an ecumenical service also featuring a distribution of ashes offered at 7:30 p.m.

Just off campus, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church will host Ash Wednesday masses at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

What do the ashes mean?

In the simplest terms, the ashes distributed at the start of Lent are marks of repentance. They are an acknowledgement of the frailty, or the imperfection of all Catholics as human beings.

In recognizing the faults symbolized in the ashes, Catholics are meant to re-affirm their connection to God. Catholics then strengthen this bond throughout Lent when they fast, or alternately, make an effort to do good works for others.

Where do the ashes come from?

According to some sources, the Ash Wednesday holiday harkens back to an ancient practice of repentance seen as early as the story of Jonah and the people of the sinful city of Nineveh.

Upon hearing that God would destroy Nineveh in 40 days if they did not change their ways, the Ninevites “great and small” began fasting, wore sackcloth, and even their king “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.”

Early Christian communities adopted the practice of outwardly marking repentance with ashes, with the ritual appearing in the Roman Missal—the book which guides priests through the rites of the mass—as early as the eighth century, or the 700s A.D.

The ancient practice has been observed into the modern day, with one parish in Galway, Ireland, this year instituting a drive-thru service for its busy and mobile population.

“It’s about meeting people where they are,” Fr. Paddy Mooney, the priest of the parish told The Irish Catholic, a local Catholic media outlet. “We’re just putting [the initiative] in front of people to help them think of Lent, as a reminder of it.”

But what is the truth about the ashes?

The truth about the ashes is that they arise from a tradition over 2,000 years old—they serve to connect Catholics to past generations of believers, even as the Catholics wearing them today seek to bring themselves closer to God.

 

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