St Francis Q&A

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Ashes on their heads"

Tonight at St Andrew’s Church: Stations of the Cross, 7 pm, with Eucharistic Adoration to follow. All are invited!!
Anon: “At Ash Wednesday Mass, when the Gospel talks about praying in secret, it seems at odds that we would do something as public as a display of ashes. We literally wear our faith on our foreheads… Ashes are meant to be an outward sign of our sin, but I wonder, when I see so many (people) I don’t see any other time of the year, if it isn’t also an act of pride. Question- are the leftover ashes buried?”

First, leftover ashes are stored year after year in the parish. If and when they are ever disposed, they are buried. Next, the question of why Ash Wednesday Masses are the most attended Masses of the liturgical year is one of the more intriguing questions in our Church. Part of it might be that we like to get “free stuff”! We like to get our ashes on Ash Wednesday, palms on Palm Sunday, indulgences on Divine Mercy Sunday (I heard confessions for 4 hours last year on DMS – people really wanted their indulgences!...even if most of them were for other people), gift cards at Youth Group, etc.

On a more serious point, the reason has to be tied in with the purpose of Lent because Catholics seem to really get into Lent. The practices of abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent and giving up one thing during Lent are probably as popular as receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. My guess as to why all of this is is that these practices, while pointing to heavenly realities, are earthly in nature. People seem to respond more to the earthly realities of our faith because they can relate to them.

For example, I recently gave a talk on suffering at another parish that was very well attended; if the topic was on the Trinity, there probably wouldn’t have been as many people, unfortunately. Also, I have found over the years in talking with people about praying the rosary that the sorrowful mysteries are the best ones for people to meditate on because they “can relate to them the best”.

Anon, you make interesting points about the nature and purpose of wearing our ashes. As excerpts from the following article from present, wearing ashes as a sign of our repentance is steeped in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Jesus even upholds this practice in Mt 11:21 (and Lk 10:13). It is very similar to and even stems from the practice in the early Church of public penance (referred to below under “Order of Penitents”). I don’t think it is an act of pride for someone to publicly reveal that they have sinned and need to repent!

To view the following article in full, please click on today’s title:

Ashes in the Bible

…In the book of Judith, we find acts of repentance that specify that the ashes were put on people's heads: "And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord" (Jdt 4:11; see also 4:15 and 9:1).

Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Mc 3:47; see also 4:39).

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).

Ashes in the History of the Church

Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.

The Order of Penitents

It seems, then, that our use of ashes at the beginning of Lent is an extension of the use of ashes with those entering the Order of Penitents. This discipline was the way the Sacrament of Penance was celebrated through most of the first millennium of Church history. Those who had committed serious sins confessed their sins to the bishop or his representative and were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. After completing their penance, they were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the community.

During the time they worked out their penances, the penitents often had special places in church and wore special garments to indicate their status…

…There is a certain irony that we use this Gospel (for Ash Wednesday), which tells us to wash our faces so that we do not appear to be doing penance on the day that we go around with "dirt" on our foreheads. This is just another way Jesus is telling us not to perform religious acts for public recognition. We don't wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge that we are a community of sinners in need of repentance and renewal.

…When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth ("Remember that you are dust"). We remember that we are mortal beings ("and to dust you will return"). We remember that we are baptized. We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion ("Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel"). We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).

…From the very beginning of Lent, God's word calls us to conversion. If we open our ears and hearts to that word, we will be like the Ninevites not only in their sinfulness but also in their conversion to the Lord. That, simply put, is the point of Ash Wednesday!


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