The time has now come in the Church year for the solemn observance of the great central act of history, the redemption of the human race by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which is used in today's liturgy. The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. The Alleluia and the Gloria are suppressed until Easter.
Fasting and Abstinence: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of universal fast and abstinence. Fasting is obligatory for all who have completed their 18th year and have not yet reached their 60th year. Fasting allows a person to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may be taken, not to equal one full meal. Abstinence (from meat) is obligatory for all who have reached their 14th year.
If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the "paschal fast" to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.
Fridays in Lent are obligatory days of complete abstinence (from meat) for all who have completed their 14th year.At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed during Mass, after the homily. The blessed ashes are then "imposed" on the faithful as a sign of conversion, penance, fasting and human mortality. The ashes are blessed at least during the first Mass of the day, but they may also be imposed during all the Masses of the day, after the homily, and even outside the time of Mass to meet the needs of the faithful. Priests or deacons normally impart this sacramental, but instituted acolytes, other extraordinary ministers or designated lay people may be delegated to impart ashes, if the bishop judges that this is necessary. The ashes are made from the palms used at the previous Passion Sunday ceremonies. — Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, Msgr. Peter J. Elliott
The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. — Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy
From the very early times the commemoration of the approach of Christ's passion and death was observed by a period of self-denial. St. Athanasius in the year 339 enjoined upon the people of Alexandria the 40 days' fast he saw practiced in Rome and elsewhere, "to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days." On Ash Wednesday in the early days, the Pope went barefoot to St. Sabina's in Rome "to begin with holy fasts the exercises of Christian warfare, that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial."
— Daily Missal of the Mystical Body
Rome, Italy, Feb 17, 2010 / 03:50 am (CNA).- Following a multitude of carnival celebrations in recent days in Rome, the city now begins the Lenten season. Among the many liturgies to be offered on Ash Wednesday in the Eternal City, the Holy Father will be leaving the Vatican borders to preside over an afternoon celebration.
"Carnevale" events in the Italian capital included parades, theater and equestrian performances, concerts and fireworks. For the first time ever, a Latin American contingent hosted a party in the streets of Rome in which participants danced past the Imperial Forums to the Colosseum.
Costumed children and masked men and women on horseback took part in events over the course of the extended Roman carnival celebrations which started Feb. 6.
With those days past now, Ash Wednesday ushers in the more solemn days of Lent.
Pope Benedict plans to host the general audience at Paul VI Hall in the Vatican as is usual on Wednesdays, then in the evening he will make his way to the Church of St. Anselm on Rome's Aventine Hill to preside over a series of acts.
He will lead a moment of prayer at the Church of St. Anselm, after which a penitential procession will take place in which he and fellow participants will direct themselves to the nearby Basilica of Saint Sabina. There, Benedict XVI will celebrate the Holy Mass with the rite of benediction and imposition of the ashes.
Cardinals, bishops, members of the Roman Curia, the Benedict Brothers of St. Anselm's and Dominican Fathers of St. Sabina will be participating along with the lay faithful.
Meanwhile, at the Basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican, the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Angelo Comastri presided over a Eucharistic Celebration and imposition of the ashes early on Wednesday to mark the start of Lent for workers in the Vatican.
In his 2010 Lenten message, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the need for 'divine justice,' giving up our thoughts of self-sufficiency and realizing our dependence on God to celebrate the fulness of charity, gift and salvation.
The Holy Father also expresses his hope that this penitential season will be "for every Christian a time of authentic conversion and intense knowledge of the mystery of Christ, who came to fulfill every justice."
VATICAN CITY, 17 FEB 2010 (VIS) - "Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the Lenten path that lasts forty days and which leads us to the joy of the Lord's Easter", the Pope said at the beginning of his catechesis during today's general audience, celebrated in the Paul VI Audience Hall.
Recalling the formula, "Convert and Believe in the Gospel", the Holy Father affirmed that "conversion means changing the direction of the path of our lives. (...) It is going against the current when the "current" is a superficial, incoherent, and illusory way of life that often drag us down, making us slaves of evil or prisoners of moral mediocrity. Nevertheless, through conversion we tend to the highest measure of Christian life, we trust in the living and personal Gospel who is Jesus Christ. He is the final goal and the profound path of conversion, the path that we are all called to travel in our lives, allowing ourselves to be illuminated with his light and sustained by his strength, which moves our steps".
"'Convert and believe in the Gospel' is not just the beginning of the Christian life, but the accompaniment of all our steps, renewing and penetrating all aspects of our lives. Each day is a moment of favour and grace, (...) even when there is no lack of difficulties, weariness, and missteps, when we are tempted to abandon the path that follows Christ and retreat into ourselves and our selfishness without paying attention to the need to keep ourselves open to the love of God in Christ in order to live the very logic of justice and love".
Benedict XVI emphasized that "faced with the innate fear of our end, and most of all in the context of a culture that tends in many ways to censure reality and the human experience of death, the Lenten liturgy reminds us of, on the one hand, death, inviting us to reality and wisdom, but on the other hand encourages us especially to grasp and live the unexpected newness that the Christian faith reveals in the reality of death itself".
"The human being", he continued, "is dust and to dust it will return, but it is dust that is precious in God's eyes because He created humanity, destining us to immortality. (...) Jesus the Lord also wanted to freely share in human frailty with each person, above all through his death on the cross. But it was precisely this death, full of his love for the Father and for humanity, that was the way of glorious resurrection, the means by which Christ became the source of grace given to all who believe in Him and participate in the same divine life".
The Pope highlighted that the distribution of ashes "is an invitation to spend the time during Lent as a more aware and more intense immersion in the paschal mystery of Christ, in his death and resurrection, through participation in the Eucharist and a life of charity that is born of the Eucharist and which finds its fulfilment in it. "With the distribution of ashes", he concluded, "we renew our commitment to follow Jesus, letting ourselves be transformed by his paschal mystery so that we may conquer evil and do good, so that we can let our 'old selves', tied to sin, die and let the 'new person' be born, transformed by the grace of God".