Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. On this day, the Church gathers to remember its humanness and mortality. We are called to the observance of a Holy Lent through the teaching of Isaiah and Jesus regarding fasting. And for this reason, Ash Wednesday is really a family gathering because the people of God are reminded that our fasting is to be done not for the praise of men, but for God's sake.
One way we remember our mortality is the imposition of ashes. The clergy take ashes and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads with these words, "Remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return." To some this action can seem morbid, but in this simple statement is the kernel of the Gospel. We are all children of Adam, made from dust, and thus also children of sin. Yet, we who are dead are made alive in Christ, and at the resurrection the perishable will be clothed with the imperishable. Ash Wednesday reminds we are fallen, but not without hope.
The Season of Lent has its origins as a season of baptismal preparation. After the peace of Constantine where Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman empire, many people began to enter the Church converting to Christianity. In those days the natural time for baptisms was on Easter, the day of resurrection. To facilitate the large number of converts, the Church developed a very thorough system of teaching called catechesis.
Each convert was required to undergo this before he or she was baptized and thus admitted into the fellowship of the saints. This intense discipleship and formation took place in the weeks before Easter and became what we observe today as Lent. It is only fitting, then, that this season of preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and remembering our lost-ness without him should begin with a reminder that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us observe a holy Lent, listening for God's voice, walking in his ways, and following our Lord and Savior to the cross.