“Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God”. (Joel 2:13). The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament involves the story of the prophet Jonah, who finally obeyed God's command and preached in the great city of Nineveh. His preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried to the king of Nineveh. "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes" (Jon 3:6). In the New Testament Jesus also made reference to ashes, "If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago" (Matthew 11:21). The Church adapted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, "Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." Ash Wednesday is also a day of both fasting and abstinence. As we begin this holy season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received: we mourn and do penance for our sins; we convert our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation, and we are reminded of this reality when the priest places the ashes on the form of a cross on our foreheads; we renew the promises made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ; finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in heaven.
Lent is the forty day period before Easter, excluding Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday up to the Mass of the Lord’s supper. The forty days remind us of the fasts by Moses on Mount Sinai, and by Christ in the desert before He began His public ministry. Lent is followed by the Sacred Triduum which begins with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, continues on Good Friday, and ends with the Easter Vigil.