Catholic faithful from all over the world have begun a 40- day fasting period commonly known as ‘Lent’ as a way of atoning for their sins.
Lent is a solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that ends approximately six weeks on Holy Thursday, the memorial of the Lord’s supper the Thursday of Holy Week before Easter Sunday.
During the period, Christians spiritually prepare for Holy Week when they remember Jesus’ death, and Easter when they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
Lent is a period that includes prayer, fasting and almsgiving and the beginning is normally marked by celebrating ‘Ash Wednesday’.
The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Ashes were used in the past to express grief.
Clergy all over the world dispense the ashes while making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads before them.
As they “impose” or “dispense” the ashes, priests, deacons, Bishops, Cardinals and the Pope reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust, you shall return.”
During the Lenten period, Catholics abstain from eating meat especially on Friday. This should be done on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as are all Fridays during Lent.
The practice is taken from biblical books. For instance, according to Samuel 13:19, when Tamar was raped by her half-brother, “she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying”.
This gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults.
Jesus is also quoted as speaking of the practice in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13:
“If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes.”
Last week, Pope Francis said Lent is a time for hope despite the uncertainties, and to care for those who suffer or feel abandoned and fearful because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Love is a gift that gives meaning to our lives,” Francis wrote in his Lenten message for 2021.
“It enables us to view those in need as members of our own family, as friends, brothers or sisters. A small amount, if given with love, never ends, but becomes a source of life and happiness.”
According to the Crux, Pope Francis asked priests to take special anti-COVID-19 precautions this year when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday.
He asked the priests to consider sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on the forehead.