Skip to comments.Ash Wednesday
Posted on 03/03/2003 5:35:48 PM PST by Salvation
|Q: What is Ash Wednesday?
A: Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins. It occurs forty days before Good Friday.
Q: Is Ash Wednesday based on a pagan festival?
A: Heck, no. Ash Wednesday originated in the A.D. 900s, long after Europe had been Christianized and the pagan cults stamped out.
Q: Why is it called Ash Wednesday?
A: Actually, Ash Wednesday is its colloquial name. Its official name is the Day of Ashes. It is called Ash <Wednesday> because, being forty days before Good Friday, it always falls on a Wednesday and it is called <Ash> Wednesday because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.
Q: Why do they have their foreheads marked with a cross?
A: Because in the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross.
This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
It is also in imitation of the way the righteousness are described in the book of Revelation, where we read of the servants of God (the Christian faithful, as symbolized by the 144,000 male virgins):
"Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads."(Revelation 7:3)
"[The demon locust] were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those of mankind who have not the seal of God upon their foreheads"(Revelation 9:4)
"Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads."(Revelation 14:1)
This is in contrast to the followers of the beast, who have the number 666 on their foreheads or hands.
The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:
"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally,"a <tav">] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house."(Ezekiel 9:4-6)
Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above (the Revised Standard Version, which we have been quoting thus far), is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a <tav> on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. <Tav> is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in ancient script it looked like the Greek letter <chi>, which happens to be two <crossed> lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek <(christos).> The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between <tav> and <chi> and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.
The early Church Fathers seized on this <tav-chi->cross-<christos> connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross, like Catholic do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
Q: Why is the signing done with ashes?
A: Because ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. While we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day. These are two of the key distinctives of Lent. In fact, Ash Wednesday is a day not only for putting ashes on one's head, but also a day of fasting (see below).
Q: What are some biblical examples of people putting dust and ashes on their foreheads?
A: Consider the following verses from the New International Version:
"That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head."(1 Samuel 4:12)
"On the third day a man arrived from Saul's camp, with his clothes torn and with dust on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground to pay him honor."(2 Samuel 1:20
"Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went."(2 Samuel 13:19)
"When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head."(2 Samuel 15:32)
Q: Is there another significance to the ashes?
A: Yes. They also symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return, "which is modeled after God's address to Adam (Genesis 3:19; cf. Job 34:15, Psalms 90:3, 104:29, Ecclesiastes 3:20). This also echoes the words at a burial, "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust, "which is based on God's words to Adam in Genesis 3 and Abraham's confession, "I am nothing but dust and ashes"(Genesis 18:27). It is thus a reminder of our mortality and our need to repent before this life is over and we face our Judge.
Q: Where do the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from?
A: They are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday, they are then blessed by a priestblessed ashes having been used in God's rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).
Q: Why are ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday used?
A: Because Palm Sunday was when the people rejoiced at Jesus' triumphal entrance to Jerusalem. They celebrated his arrival by waving palm fronds, little realizing that he was coming to die for their sins. By using palms from Palm Sunday, it is a reminder that we must not only rejoice of Jesus' coming but also regret the fact that our sins made it necessary for him to die for us in order to save us from hell.
Q: Is having one's forehead signed with ashes required of the faithful?
A: No, it is not required. However, it is to be strongly encouraged as it is a fitting and visible spiritual reminder that encourages one to adopt an attitude of prayer, repentance, and humility. As James said: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up"(James 4:10).
Q: Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation, that is, a day on which we are required to go to Mass?
A: No, it is not a holy day of obligation. However, it is strongly advisable since it is fitting to mark the beginning of penitential season of Lent by going to Mass. The formal, corporate worship of God is a good way to get a good start to the season. Also, even though it is not a holy day of obligation, it is a day of fast and abstinence.
Q: Why isn't Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation?
A: Holy days of obligation are either commemorations of particular events (such as the birth of Christ or the presentation of Jesus in the Temple), particular people (such as Jesus' earthly father, St. Joseph), or important theological concepts (such as the Kingship of Christ). Ash Wednesday does not commemorate any event (nothing special happened forty days before the crucifixionat least not that we know of), and could only be said to indirectly commemorate a Person (Christ) since it is the beginning of preparation for the greater celebrations of Christ's saving work, which follow, and although Ash Wednesday is a day of penance (like all of the days of Lent except Sundays, which are feast days no matter when they occur in the liturgical calendar since they celebrate Christ's resurrection), the Church has never chosen to make it or any other specific day the definitive commemoration of the concept of repentance.
Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved
Expected? Yes. Required? No.
One should certainly be in quiet contemplation the entire day, certainly from 12-3. But there is no canonical requirement that I am aware of to attend any service or to "visit" the church.
True, Good Friday is not listed as a Holy Day of Obligation but the obligation of fasting and abstinence applies. The importance of attending the solemn liturgies of the Easter triduum is, sadly, downplayed in most dioceses.
The importance of attending the solemn liturgies of the Easter triduum is, sadly, downplayed in most dioceses.
Is this true? That is sad.
Yes, people should attend as many liturgies that week as possible. Chrism Mass, Mass of the Lord's Supper, Good Friday service, Easter Vigil. Not because you "have to," but because you want to.
Mistake. I hadn't been to an N.O. "Mass" for a very long time and as soon as I entered I knew it was a mistake. First, I felt like I was entering some kind of rock concert or something. Everyone was chatting as they found their seats. When they got to their seats they continued talking. Laughing, Joking. Out loud. Very loud. Cell phones went off. People chatted. A young boy in front of me had an earring. No one genuflected upon entering the pew. At most there was a half-hearted nod. People were laughing and chattering. I looked up at the barren altar and saw a jug of wine, in a carafe like I was in an Italian restaurant. Then there were several 1960s looking ceramic trays, which I assume were to hold the Body of Christ.
The chatter continued. Someone genuflected to get in to the pew in front of me and the young woman sitting at the end of the pew glared at him and spat "there are plenty of empty seats, why are you trying to sit here!"
Then a horrid cow of a lady grabbed the microphone on the altar and began announcing the Mass as if it were a sporting event. "First we will be singing the blah blah and then we will blah blah, your server this afternoon will be blah blah."
The priest sauntered out and began going on about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. One problem: there was no mention whatsoever of the main point: pennance, self-denial, focus on Christ's death. Instead we were told that "this is a great opportunity to improve our personal relationship with Jesus."
And oh sweet Lord, I have forgotten the banality of the new "Mass." The hollow responses, as the masses bark out "and also with you" "thanks be to God" blah blah blah. It is like some kind of revival meeting.
And the "readings"? Good Lord! Some old dude with long hair slunk up to the podium to read the first reading. Talk about dramatics...Someone looking to break into showbiz? Then the maitre d'host lady waddled up to the microphone to sing out the "responsorial psalm." Something trite and banal.
Finally Father bothered to get up and do something. Reading the Gospel, only to have the crowd call out "praise to you Lord Jesus Christ!!!" as if we are in some kind of baseball stadium. "Batter UP!"
I completely missed the consecration. I wonder whether it even happened. All of a sudden he was thrusting the jug of wine in the air and saying the dreaded "for all men." I did not get a feeling of the moment of consecration and wondered if I had lost my place at Mass. Anyone who has ever been to a real Mass knows exactly what I am talking about: you know when the consecration has taken place. Also you can hear a pin drop. Not even a cell phone, if one can imagine that.
Then came the Vegas-style glad-handing. The roar of "peace be with you" rose above the crowd. I closed my eyes and folded my hands in prayer. I am not at a used car dealership, I am in the Presence of our Lord (or at least am supposed to be). It is not about welcoming my neighbor -- it's all about God.
Then, to my horror, an old dude with grey hair to his shoulders and that lesbian-looking maitre d' lady waddled around to the priest as the priest dug his hand into the chalice and pulled out a handful of hosts. Some spilled all over the altar. He snatched them up in a non-chalant manner as if one had dropped a cookie or something. Then he handed he funky ceramic dishes to the hippie and the maitre d' lady who proceded to pass them out. A few other "extraordinary ministers" held cups of wine. They were singing "taste and see the goodness of the Lord, taste and see." It sounded like an advert for communion: hey, come on up! Taste it and see! This wine is good! When I saw the hippie digging his hands into the platter of hosts I turned and left. It was absolutely DEPRESSING.
My opposition to the new Church became even stronger, if that is possible. Simply put: it is not Catholic. End of story. Thank God my chapel is having Ash Wednesday tonight. What on earth was I thinking!!!
Rather than trashing each other's Masses, let's focus on responding to the Holy Father's call for prayer and penance to avoid more bloodshed and war in the world, particularly the Middle East.
That was not my intent. I flagged you personally based on several posts I noted where you made good arguments. I select each person I flag individually. That is why I take so much time deciding who to flag. I am sorry if I have annoyed you with the flag. I will heretofore cease to do so.
let's focus on responding to the Holy Father's call for prayer and penance to avoid more bloodshed and war in the world, particularly the Middle East.
I agree with you completely. Fast Thursday for peace.
It may be old hat to those who have been in the NO recently and who usually attend the Traditional Mass, but I hadn't been in years. It is not that it has changed. It is just that it in NO WAY resembles the Mass of Ages. I really felt myself in a protestant worship service. I also felt sorry for all the people there who are deprived of the glory and beauty of the Traditional Mass. If only they knew what they were missing...
What a gruesome afternoon! Can you imagine: a dykey looking lady and an aging hippie thrusting their grubby hands into the platter of Hosts? I groaned out loud. And then rushed the door.
Thank God my chapel is having Ash Wednesday tonight.
Unfortunately, we do not have ashes at any traditional church that I know of. We are planning to go to the NO at the parish where we attend the indult. This will be our first NO Mass since last October (which was a funeral).
You've said it all! I honestly -- and I am not just trying to rag on the N.O. -- felt that I was attending at a different religion. I went to a wedding in a protestant church a few years ago. It felt the same way strange. A previous poster commented that Lent was not the time to criticize other Catholics for going to N.O. I disagree. Now more than ever we must pray to our Lord for a restoration of the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Mass. I think all the ills in the world would begin to turn around if this happened. Sounds naive, but I am convinced.
" Dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return."
|Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. (Joel 2:13)
Ash Wednesday is a day of both fasting and abstinence.
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."
I can't disagree with you.