Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance before God. It marked the beginning of the Lenten season, which runs 40 days until the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, every day during this period was a ritual fasting day in which Catholics would abstain from eating meat. More recently, the practice is only held on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all of the Fridays of the Lenten season.
As with all important days of repentance and fasting, the day is not without meaning. The ashes scored across foreheads around the world today harkens back to the bible when the early Jewish prophets would put on sackcloth and roll in the ashes (Jer 6:26, Is 58:5, Dn 9:3). The act was one of self-sacrifice as a way of atoning, or of penance. Today we don’t wear sackcloth or roll around, but the ashes we wear on our forehead carry the same symbolism.
The most vital part of this day is not the act of wearing ashes, or sackcloth, or even of fasting. It is the inner repentance, which these things symbolize. The true abstinence comes from within us and is only externalized in part through our ritual and rite.
This season is a time of atonement. It is a time to thank God, and to look closely at ourselves and examine what we find there. To lay naked before Him, covering our sins with nothing but ash and sackcloth, prostrated and cleansed as we can be, we ask forgiveness. It is a powerful day.