ORIGINS AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:
The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, which is the first day of the Lenten fast. The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead — or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure — of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes.
There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the “Dies Irae“) is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Giovanni Domenico Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. “We read” he says:
“in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266). It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolised by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary. But on this and the practice of beginning the fast on Ash Wednesday see LENT. (Thurston, H. (1907). ‘Ash Wednesday’. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.)
Why do we call this day so?
Because on this day the Catholic Church blesses ashes and puts them on the foreheads of the faithful, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).
Lent is certainly one of the most important times of year for the Christian. It is that special time of year where we are penitential, fasting for 40 days in penance and prayer in anticipation of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This mirrors what happened with Our Blessed Lord in the desert. During this time of fasting by Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Devil tempted him. Likewise, we are tempted by the devil to forego our fast, and take the easy way out. One of the fortifications against this temptation is the prayer and nourishment we receive at Holy Mass. It is with the prayers of the Holy Sacrifice that we reflect on that call to mind the struggle we wage. It is with the grace of the Eucharist we are given the strength to resist Satan and continue in our journey of fasting, as we eagerly strive for heaven. As we Catholics prepare for this penitential season, and undertake the voyage, we should have in our liturgy, that which trains our minds and our souls for spiritual warfare, and nourishment in the Eucharist.
Why are the ashes blessed?
- That all who receive them with a contrite heart may be preserved in soul and body.
- That God may give them contrition, and pardon their sins.
- That He may grant them all they humbly ask for, particularly the grace to do penance, and the reward promised to the truly penitent.
Why are the faithful sprinkled with ashes?
The sprinkling with ashes was always a public sign of penance; as such God enjoined it upon the Israelites (Jeremiah 25:34). David sprinkled ashes on his bread (Psalms 102:9). The king of Nineveh covered himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonas 3:6), Judith puts ashes on her head (Judith 9:1), Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1), the Prophet Job, despising himself repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6), then they tore their garments and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes (1 Maccabees 4:39) and many others also made penance in sack-cloth and ashes.
To show the spirit of penance and to move God to mercy, the Church, at the Introit of the Mass, uses the following words: “But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.” (Wisdom 11:23-26). “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge.” Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen
Grant, O Lord, to Thy faithful people that they may begin the venerable solemnities of fasting with becoming piety, and may persevere to the end with steadfast devotion. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ [God’s Response and Promise] Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. In response to his people the Lord said: I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations.
The prophet, in these words, calls upon the Israelites to be converted, reminding them of the great mercy of God, and exhorting them to join true repentance for their sins with their fasting and alms. They should all, without exception, do penance and implore the mercy of God, Who would then forgive them, deliver them from their enemies, and bring peace and happiness upon them.
Concerning Fasting: At that time Jesus said to His disciples: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Concerning Treasures: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
INSTRUCTION ON LENT.
What is the origin of fasting?
Under the Old Law the Jews fasted by the command of God; thus Moses fasted forty days and forty nights, on Mount Sinai, when God gave him the Ten Commandments; Elias, in like manner, fasted in the desert. Jesus also fasted, and commanded His apostles to fast also. The Catholic Church, says St.Leo, from the time of the apostles, has enjoined fasting upon all the faithful.
Why has the Church instituted the fast before Easter?
- To imitate Jesus Christ, Who fasted forty days.
- To participate in His merits and passion; for as Christ could only be glorified through His sufferings, so in order to belong to Him we must follow Him by a life answering to His.
- To subject the flesh to the spirit, and thus…
- prepare ourselves for Easter and the worthy reception of the divine Lamb.
- Finally, to offer to God some satisfaction for our sins, and, as St. Leo says, to atone for the sins of a whole year by a short fast of the tenth part of a year.
Was the fast of Lent kept in early times as it is now?
Yes, only more rigorously; for:
- The Christians of the early ages abstained not only from flesh-meat, but from those things which are produced from flesh, such as butter, eggs, cheese, and also from wine and fish.
- They fasted during the whole day, and ate only after vespers, that is, at night.
How shall we keep the holy season of Lent with merit?
We should endeavour not only to deny ourselves food and drink, but, still more, all sinful gratifications. And as the body is weakened by fasting, the soul, on the other hand, should be strengthened by repeated prayers, by frequent reception of the holy sacraments, attending Mass, spiritual reading, and good works, particularly those of charity. In such manner we shall be able, according to the intention of the Church, to supply by our fasting what we have omitted during the year, especially if we fast willingly, and with a good intention.
O Lord Jesus, I offer up to Thee my fasting and self-denial, to be united to Thy fasting and sufferings, for Thy glory, in gratitude for so many benefits received from Thee, in satisfaction for my sins and those of others, and to obtain Thy holy grace that I may overcome my sins and acquire the virtues which I need. Look upon me, O Jesus, in mercy. Amen.
(Carthusian, 1999. From Advent to Pentecost, ‘Ash Wednesday‘ pp. 64-65, London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Carthusian Novice Conferences)
‘… You are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19)
When? Tomorrow? Next year? In twenty years’ time? It doesn’t matter! This gran of dust on your forehead is your inescapable destiny. So employ your short years well, be converted, turn towards Christ who alone can give you pardon and life.
Thus we begin Lent, a time of conversion and austerity, but also a time of restrained joy, ‘the joy of a purified heart’ (the second Preface of Lent). It is a question of ‘preparing oneself for the Paschal feat’. We are going to a feast!
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.’ (Matthew 6:16)
So listen well to the Lord and take what he says as a norm of conduct, not only for Lent, but for your whole life as a monk, because the life of a monk is but one long preparation for the definitive Paschal feast.
‘But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:17-18)
The demands of these words, applied to all the deprivations that we embrace or that we undergo, go a very long way.
During this week, at Matins, we sing the response about Abraham, we meditate on his trial, the sacrifice of Isaac. ‘Put oil on your head and wash your face.’ Your Father says so. What grandeur there is at times in silence — not the silence of transgression, but the silence of virtue that is perfect when it is not even aware of itself — and what strength can be drawn from it. Christian cheerfulness is the simplicity of faith, the seriousness of hope, the vitality of Love.
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