The ritual is performed basically to hold people back from chasing after such worldly pursuits.
The one question often posed by philosophers and spiritual masters along with the purpose of human existence is: “why are we the way we are”? Why are certain people selfish, destructive and violent, while others just the opposite? Couldn’t God have done a better job with creation, making us free of our vices that sometimes take the better of us? Or is it that God actually created a beautiful world but somewhere along the way evil creeped into it, resulting in such things as war, insatiable greed for money, power, lust and so on?
Such questions, however, should concern not just philosophers and spiritual masters but all of us since they deal with our human condition. It is to treat such tendencies that Christianity sets aside certain days for its believers to ponder on and if required to repent for those things that offend God and harm fellow human beings. One such day falls today and is known in the Christian liturgical calendar as “Ash Wednesday”. It is actually the beginning of a set of days — 46 in all — known as the Lent season, having its own specific rituals and with references to Bible passages to draw inspiration from. The season will culminate with Holy Week church services, including Good Friday, commemorating Jesus’ death on the Cross and Easter Sunday celebrating his resurrection.
As the words signify, “Ash Wednesday”, has something to do with ashes. Today, during the holy mass, the priest will draw a cross with ashes on people’s foreheads, pronouncing the profound words, “Remember man/woman that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return.” The ritual is performed basically to hold people back from chasing after such worldly pursuits, which not only prevent one from getting nearer to God but which also lead them into such evil tendencies that are harmful to oneself, to other human beings and to the environment. During these 46 days, through the practice of fasting and prayer, the faithful will be reminded to observe what is pleasing to God and what is helpful to others, specially the poor.
For instance, the Bible passage on Ash Wednesday would tell all church goers how to observe ideal fast: “Is such the fast… to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast…? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Such a practice would surely transform our own inner-self leading to larger transformation of human society and our human condition?