Ash Wednesday Mass celebrations mark beginning of Easter countdown
By Emily Booker
Ash Wednesday on Feb. 22 marked the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of penance and prayer as the Church spiritually prepares for Easter.
Although not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday is one of the most highly attended holy days in the Church as the faithful come to start the Lenten season with Mass and the imposition of ashes.
It was a packed house at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus during the noon Mass, celebrated by Bishop Richard F. Stika, with the pews inside at capacity as well as the parking lots outside the cathedral.
Churches around the diocese reported strong attendance for the annual liturgical celebration.
In his homily, Bishop Stika encouraged people to use the season as an opportunity to acknowledge and turn away from their sin, which keeps them from Christ.
“One of the definitions of a saint that I have seen, time and time again, is a saint is a person who recognizes that they are a sinner. And doesn’t that make sense? Because if we don’t understand that we are tainted by sin, how can we be saved?” he asked.
The bishop said that even seemingly small sins and habits draw us farther from God.
“We make decisions about our life, and then those decisions lead to sin. Most of the sins we commit are kind of simple, and yet they can change us.
“How about the white lie? The white lie—you say it quickly, say it doesn’t matter much, but then they begin to pile up and up, and then they begin to encircle; it’s like a wall. Because we began to believe that it’s OK.”
In recognizing those sins, he said, we can break our bad habits and turn toward better habits that will lead us closer to God.
“They say it takes 14 days to create a habit, a good habit or a bad habit. Just say for 14 days in a row if we decide to say the rosary, go to Mass every day, [pray the] Stations of the Cross, be kind, charitable, compassionate. If we really make an effort to do that, then it’ll become a positive, good habit that will carry on throughout the year,” the bishop advised.
The three pillars of Lent— almsgiving, prayer, and fasting —offer ways for the faithful to turn their focus back on loving God and loving others.
Regarding fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together do not equal a full meal.
The norms on fasting are obligatory to Catholics from age 18 until age 59, excluding the physically or mentally ill and including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes as well as women who are pregnant or nursing.
In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence from meat. The norms on abstinence from meat are obligatory to Catholics from age 14 onwards.
Bishop Stika noted how abstinence from meat on Fridays is intended to be a penitential act, yet sometimes, people lose sight of its meaning.
“So, now we eat fish on Friday, and we eat lobster, right? Those people that love fish, they love Fridays in Lent,” he said, referring to the various fish fries or seafood specials offered during the season.
But, he said, it is important to engage the season of Lent with the right intentions, that is, living in a way that brings people closer to God.
“These different practices—almsgiving, prayer, fasting —are an invitation to us to simplify our lives,” Bishop Stika explained.
“The Church invites us to participate in something special. For the next number of weeks, it’s not just about fish fries or spring break. The Church invites us to a section of the year that allows us to focus on sins less and focus on Jesus more.”
After the homily, Bishop Stika blessed the ashes, made from burning the palms used in last year’s Palm Sunday Masses. The ashes symbolize grief and repentance of sins.
This liturgical exercise was repeated at every diocesan church and Catholic mission.
People received the ashes in a shape of a cross on their forehead and were then told “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” or “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
The ashes are sacramentals, so unlike the holy sacraments, anyone is welcome to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, even the unbaptized. That might be one reason Ash Wednesday is such a popular holy day, as people from all walks of life, at all stages in their spiritual journey, seek a sign of repentance and hope.
As Bishop Stika noted, it is a season of invitation.
During the Eucharistic Revival now underway in the Diocese of Knoxville and around the country, several East Tennessee parishes are holding Lenten retreats with a special emphasis on the understanding and love of the Eucharist. Visit dioknox.org/revival to see a list of Eucharistic Revival events.
Also, this year, the memorial of St. Patrick falls on Friday, March 17. It is well known that St. Patrick’s Day is a day of convivial celebration for many American Catholics.
Therefore, Bishop Stika has issued a dispensation decree stating: “On Friday, March 17, 2023, all Catholics of the Diocese of Knoxville, by my authority, are dispensed from the abstinence obligation (can. 87 §1). It is not required that anyone make use of this dispensation. Those who do wish to make use of it are encouraged to abstain from meat on some other day as part of their penitential practices and to engage in some additional act of prayer, service to the poor, or almsgiving.”