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Ash Wednesday is more than just ashes

  • Palms are burned for ashes used to mark the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The penitential season of Lent calls Christians to prayer, fasting, repentance and charity. CNS file photo/Bill Wittman
  • Catholics attend an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2011. (CNS file photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva)

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Walk through any school, supermarket, subway or shopping center next Wednesday and you are likely to find Catholics marked with the sign of the cross in dark ashes on their forehead. Ash Wednesday -- the beginning of the season of Lent.

"The imposition of ashes is not just a simple rite, but it is something very profound that touches our hearts," said Father Lukasz Wisniewski, vice-rector of the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary in Brookline. These ashes, according to Father Wisniewski, are made from either burning olive branches or the palms blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday.

But where does the tradition of receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent originate?

"At first, this rite was not directly connected with the beginning of Lent," explained Father Wisniewski. "This custom is an ancient penitential practice common among the Hebrew people." He pointed to several instances in the Old Testament when people use sackcloth and ashes, including the city of Ninevah in the book of Jonah, to demonstrate their repentance.

According to Father Wisniewski, during the 7th century, ashes were "used as part of temporarily expelling public sinners from the community of believers for sins like apostasy, heresy, murder and adultery."

Once public sinners had spent 40 days repenting for their sins, living apart from the community, they received sacramental forgiveness and were then led back into the assembly by their bishop.

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