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February 23, 2012February 23, 2012  0 comments  Religious ceremonies

According to the Roman Catholic tradition (as well followed by some Protestants), Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Lenten Season of prayer and fasting, which lasts 40 days and officially ends on the Holy Thursday, preceding Easter. The date for the Ash Wednesday changes every year, depending on when Easter is. Ash Wednesday 2012 was on February 22nd.

 

Why the celebration is called Ash Wednesday?

 

During a special mass service on that day, a priest applies the ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross or simply sprinkles the ashes on our head saying the words: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return". This sentence takes its origin from the biblical Book of Genesis, where God speaks to Adam and Eve: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." (Genesis 3:19) - After committing, so called, the Original Sin.

 

The act of imposing ashes on our heads indicates our mortality and our sorrow for the sins. However, as the followers of Christianity, we know that Christ died on the cross to redeem us, so we are granted the eternal life in heaven. Marking the cross on a believer's forehead symbolises Christ's death and resurrection.

 

Ash Wednesday Christians Bethlehem Travelujah
Ashes marketing on forehead, photo courtesy Beata Andonia for Travelujah

 

Now many people might ask the question: Where do the ashes come from? - And the answer is: The Ash Wednesday's ashes are made from blessed palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. What is more, they are sprinkled with Holy Water and incensed before distribution.


Catholics of Bethlehem celebrate Ash Wednesday:


On behalf of Travelujah, I attended the Ash Wednesday celebration held in the St. Catherine's Church of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem at 9 am. The morning mass was mainly designated for the school children, who came numerously with their guardians. Since Arabic is not my native tongue, I was content that the priest spoke a simple language easily absorbed by children.
 The core words of his preaching were: ALMS - FASTING - PRAYER. (In Arabic, all of the words begin with "S" - so the theme is really "catchy".)

Those three words reflect the character of the Lenten period. Almsgiving is the sign of care for those in need and an expression of  gratitude for all the things God has given. Fasting for 40 days is a way of developing  self-control and it also serves as a reminder of Jesus's fasting in the wilderness, during which he endured and overcame temptation by Satan: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry." (Matt. 4: 1-2) Fasting should be also linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast due their situation. The main food Christians abstain when fasting is meat - traditionally linked to the poor, who could not afford it for their meals. Prayer means the time of contemplation with God and reflection on our lives. Lent is the time of calming our spirit.

 

Ash Wednesday Bethlehem Travelujah

 Priest clothed in traditional purple robe for Lent; photo courtesy Beata Andonia for Travelujah

Later, came the time for applying the ashes. While the youth choir sang, the people who had gathered in the church formed queues to receive the dusts.

 

Ash Wednesday Bethlehem St. Catherine Church Travelujah

Inside of St. Catherines Church' photo courtesy Beata Andonia for Travelujah


During the mass, part of Gospel of Matthew (6: 1-6, 16-18) was read, which speaks  about being humble during the fasting period and warns against flaunting our good acts in front of others. "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret" (Matt. 6: 3-4) Our good deeds are going to be rewarded surely, since God the Father "[...] who is in secret" (Matt. 6: 18) is omniscient and knows everything what we are doing. So, there is no place for hypocrisy.

More Lent Facts:


Note: Please note that the priest is wearing purple, the colour reserved for Lent which symbolizes royalty and repentance.

 

Ash Wednesday Bethlehem St. Catherine Church Travelujah
Choir chanting during Lent; photo courtesy Beata Andonia for Travelujah

Note: According to the Roman Catholics, Sundays before Easter are not included in the fasting period, because of Jesus' resurrection on Sunday. However, most people restrict themselves from eating meat  on those days as well and therefore the will eat fish dishes.


Is the Ash Wednesday celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church?


No, the Eastern Orthodox Christians do not have this tradition. Instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday (27.02.2012) - the day of "clean hearts and good intentions" and rigorous fasting. Orthodox Christians begin their Lent on a different day, because they follow different liturgical calendar. In the opposition to the Roman Catholics, they count Sundays as fasting days.


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Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.

 

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