The whole Mass is a call to “penance”. We plunge straight into hearing the Word of God calling us to change. Ashes symbolise decay, death, the absence of life. We used to hear a sombre “Remember man that thou art dust; and unto dust shall you return”. Much better on Wednesday the priest will say: “Change your life: believe (that is put into practice) the Gospel”. It is not one of the old so-called “Days of Obligation”. But each year you do come, just to start Lent well. It is also technically a “day of fasting and abstinence”. It will make much more sense if you do something positive for others, especially if it is inconvenient.
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