Ash Wednesday: the Necessity and Salutary Effects of Penance
“For what is your life? It is a vapor which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away.” – St. James, iv, 10.
"In the first centuries of Christianity, my dear children, great sinners, at least those whose sins, having been committed publicly, had given bad example, were condemned by the Church to perform a public penance more or less long and severe, according to the importance of their sins.
At the beginning of Lent, penitent went barefoot to the cathedral; there the Bishop exhorted them to repent, after which, taking some dust and marking them on the forehead, he said at the same time these words: “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Then the Bishop turned the penitents out of church, and they were not allowed to return thither until the time of the penance was ended.
My children, if we are now treated less severely, you must not conclude that our sins have become more excusable, or that we are less obliged to atone for them; though the Church now spares us the shame of public penance, we are none the less obliged to do sincere and real penance in the depths of our hearts, and we shall not cease to hear the necessity of penance preached during this holy time.
In remembrance of this ancient custom, the Church, considering that all her children are sinners as of old, has adopted this ceremony of the giving of ashes on the first day of Lent, named accordingly Ash-Wednesday. The words uttered by the Priest whilst he marks our foreheads with the ashes, remind us that we must die some day, that it is good for us to think of our latter end, so as to atone for the sins already committed and to avoid committing others.
These serious thoughts can be of all the greater use to us at a time of the year, which gives to many the opportunity of acting foolishly and of grievously offending God in his goodness.
As for you, my dear children, during these day of folly, I know that you amuse yourselves under your parent’s guidance and by their leave; however, it may be needful to remind some of you, who too deeply lament over the shortness of these days of pleasure, as, for instance little girls, who perhaps at a party, have been rather vain of their beauty or of their dress; I say merely to amuse ourselves, and that our poor bodies, being made of dust and destined to fall once more into dust, it is folly to be so very proud of them.
On Ash-Wednesday, let us then ask God, my children, to cure us of our vanity."
[Source: The Catholic Instructor: An Educational Library of Ready Reference, Published by The Office of Catholic Publications, New York, 1910.]
Wishing all my readers a happy and blessed Ash-Wednesday and Lent! God bless you all!