, FEBRUARY 21, 2007 (STAR) By Edu Punay - The Christian observance of the Lenten season begins today with the traditional Ash Wednesday rites in churches across the country, the Archdiocese of Manila announced yesterday.

Millions of devotees are expected to troop to churches to have foreheads marked with ashes forming an image of the cross as a sign of renewal of their baptismal vows.

Fr. Genaro Diwa, liturgist of the archdiocese, said the Ash Wednesday ritual is significant to the Church as it symbolizes a "penitential system that can be traced to the first century of Christianity when confessions were done publicly and not individually."

The priest said this ritual — although not mandatory — serves as a reaffirmation of Catholics to follow the ways of Christ and to seek the forgiveness of God for their sins. He said the Church associated ashes with repentance.

Diwa said it was during the early years of the Christian Church when the practice of using ashes in confessions started: "Sinners were gathered by the bishop at the door of the cathedral. Their names were enlisted in a book and then the bishop prays over them and smears ashes on each. The length of penance could last from a year to three depending on the gravity of the sin committed."

"When we celebrate Ash Wednesday, we admit in our community that we are now ready to repair whatever damages we have in our relationship with God and with others," he further explained.

Under this tradition, old palms used during last year’s Lenten celebration are burned into ashes that will then be used in Masses. This symbolizes renewal of commitment to God through the ways of Christ.

While applying the ash, the priest will tell Catholics, "Dust you are and to dust you are returned." Diwa said this symbolizes "mortality of man and also serves as proof of humility."

After Ash Wednesday, other traditional practices like fasting, abstinence and recollection will follow in the next 40 days as part of the observance of the Lenten season, which ends on Holy Week, when the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are traditionally remembered.

"This Lenten season is a grace filled of opportunities for us to be renewed once again by the Grace of God. There are many things that we do during this season. We hope that all these activities will help strengthen us in our renewal," Diwa stressed.

The priest clarified that observing these practices during Lenten season is "not obligatory" but "highly recommended" since they are a strong symbolism of the desire to be renewed.

Diwa said there are also other important meanings of such practices. He cited for instance the tradition of fasting during Lenten season, which the Church recognizes as "solidarity with the poor."

"Even if we were not able to receive ashes or practice these beliefs, I think we can still be forgiven and renewed as long as there is that desire to be changed and seek pardon from God," the priest added.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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