Czech Easter - Ash Wednesday
Contributed by Petr Chudoba

"For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19 JPS)

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (Popeleční středa), the seventh Wednesday before Easter. It occurs forty days before the holiday (not counting the intervening Sundays). It is said that, Jak je na Popeleční středu, tak bude celý půst. ("The kind of day Ash Wednesday is, that is the way all of Lent will be.")

Popeleční středa is a day of solemn repentance. Its Latin name, "Dies Cinerum," originated from an ancient custom - the use of ashes as a symbol of repentance. Reference to "Dies Cinerum" can be found in the Roman Missal and in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century.

On Popeleční středa, believers in Catholic churches are given sanctified ashes, which by ancient tradition are obtained by burning twigs - mostly pussywillow - which were blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday.

In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, whether bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

Why are ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday used? Because Palm Sunday was when the people rejoiced at Jesus' triumphal entrance to Jerusalem:

"They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: 'Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!' And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, 'Who is this?' So the multitudes said, 'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.'" (Matthew 21:7-11 NKJV)

They celebrated His arrival by waving palms, little realizing that He was coming to die for their sins. By using the branches from Palm Sunday, it is a reminder that we must not only rejoice of the Lord's coming but also regret the fact that our sins made it necessary for Him to die for us in order to save us from hell.

The priest places the blessed ashes on the foreheads of the officiating priests, the clergy and the congregation in the shape of a cross. Why are their foreheads marked with a cross? Because in the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. In this case, it signifies that the person belongs to Jesus, Who died on the Cross. This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on Christians in baptism, when they are delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and they are made slaves of righteousness and Christ (Romans 6:3-18).

As the priest does this, he recites over each person either "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19) or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." It is thus a reminder of our mortality and our need to repent before this life is over and we face our Judge.

It is believed that the custom of wearing ashes was borrowed from the Jewish religion. For instance, "Also, in every province that the king's command and decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing, and everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes." (Esther 4:3 JPS)

In Biblical times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head.

From the fourth to the tenth century, the bishops sprinkled ashes over the heads of penitents who appeared before them in a garment of sackcloth. Later, as penance became a voluntary and private act, the custom developed into its present form.

While we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day.