The 40-day penitential season of Lent for Catholics started on Ash Wednesday. At St. Anthony of Padua in Manteca, the Mass also served as the weekly worship service for the students of St. Anthony School who normally celebrate it on Thursdays.
The imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful was held at the conclusion of the Mass. Several other services were held throughout the day for those who could not be there at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., with the imposition of ashes preceded by scripture readings.
Father Chad Wahl, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, said Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year for priests, which explains the number of services scheduled on this day.
The students’ Mass is also called a "teaching mass" with Father Wahl conducting his homily as though he is speaking to the students in the classroom with questions and answers explained. On Ash Wednesday, his topic was about why the faithful receive ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads to mark the first day of Lent. This is not to prevent death the next year, as some believe, or to protect one against death. Nor is it meant to replace the Sunday Mass obligation, he explained.
The ash is a "symbol of penance, a sign of repentance;" for the faithful, it's "saying to the world that I'm a sinner," he said.
In the olden days, the common sign of repentance had the penitent covering themselves with ashes and wearing the heavy and itchy sack cloths so everybody knew they were in penance.
Ashes in the form of the cross on one's forehead is "a sign of our immortality," said the pastor. That message is carried out in the words that are uttered when the individual receives the sign of the cross: "thou art dust and unto dust you shall return."
The ash though also carries a hopeful spiritual meaning; "it is a sign of faith;" it's saying, "Christ conquered death," noted Father Chad.
The next 40 days following Ash Wednesday will be the Lenten journey culminating to the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.