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.
Abstinence from eating meat is to be observed on all Fridays during Lent. This applies to all persons 14 and older. The law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday applies to all Catholics from age 18 through age 59.
Historically today is the feast of St. Catherine de Ricci a native of Florence, Italy, who became a Dominican tertiary in 1535 and eventually filled the offices of novice-mistress and prioress. She was famous for her ecstasies in which she beheld and enacted the scenes of our Lord’s passion. It is said that she met St. Philip Neri, in a vision who was still alive in Rome. Three future popes were among the thousands who flocked to her convent to ask her prayers.
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
PRAYER FOR ASH WEDNESDAY. Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
NIGHT PRAYER. This prayer is designed to be said within the family before a Crucifix from Ash Wednesday to Saturday at the beginning of Lent.
Mother or a child: From the words of St. John the Evangelist (14:1-6).
Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Were it not so, I would have told you, because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I am coming again, and I will take you to myself, that where I am, there you also may be. And where I go, you know, and the way you know.
Father: We ought to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
Family: in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection.
Father: Let us pray. Grant to your faithful, Lord, a spirit generous enough to begin these solemn fasts with proper fervor and to pursue them with steadfast devotion. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
Family: Amen. Favor this dwelling, Lord, with your presence. Far from it repulse all the wiles of Satan. Your holy angels—let them live here, to keep us in peace. And may your blessing remain always upon us. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
Father: Let us bless the Lord.
Family: Thanks be to God.
Father: May the almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless and keep us.
Prayer Source: Holy Lent by Eileen O’Callaghan, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1975