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Of sackcloth and ashes

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

india Updated: Mar 02, 2006 12:18 IST

The CatholicChurch has a liturgical calendar in addition to the normal calendar that everyone follows. Its purpose is to relive the events of Jesus' life in real time. For instance, Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days before he undertook his ministry. So during the 40 days of Lent till the time of Easter (Sundays are excluded), people are expected to spend more time in prayer, though not everyone is expected to fast.

Ash Wednesday (today, March 1) marks the beginning of the season of Lent. During the liturgical celebration today, the priest will apply ash on each one's forehead, saying, "Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return."

In the Biblical times when people had to repent of their sins and had decided to mend their ways, they would apply ash on their whole body, abstain from all kinds of pleasures and put on sackcloth. "Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colours that was on her…" (2 Sam. 13:19).

Or "Clothe yourself with sackcloth, and roll about in ashes…" (Jer. 6:26) and "Therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6), are some instances cited in the Old Testament.

Today, one finds that the practice of wearing sackcloth and applying ashes as a sign of repentance has all but disappeared from the Christian tradition. Certainly, Jesus too had admonished people, "When you fast, do not be like hypocrites with a sad countenance… but when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face" (Matt. 6: 16).

Not that Jesus was against the practices of the Old Testament. He was telling people to be more authentic in what they did. For instance, he said, "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men to be seen by them," "… but let your left hand not know what your right hand is doing" (Mt. 6:1-3).

The essential element, therefore, is to strike a balance between penance and prayer, to cleanse our conscience with true repentance.