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!


At 2:10 PM, Blogger fran said...

People DO like freebies. Just last week I read an article on the grand opening of a Chick-Fil-A, and the 100 participants who waited in line for a day and half to qualify for coupons for a year's worth of free food! AND some of these same people, travel from place to place awaiting the grand opening of other restaurants to gather more coupons!!

I agree that people respond to things of faith to which they can relate. Is it accurate to refer to the imposition of ashes as a Church tradtion? Maybe this is why people of faith respond favorably to this particular day. People like their traditions, too. I miss some of the Church traditions of my childhood.

I find it interesting that there was a large turnout on a presentation centered on suffering. I know it is a frequent topic of discussion even on this site, but it can get rather depressing. If there is ever a talk on the Trinity or some other uplifting topic, count me in!

Off to Rita's for a FREE "First Day of Spring" ice!

At 4:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The homily I heard today centered on the part of the Gospel, “Love thy neighbor as you love yourself.” All day the thought has stuck with me- how do I love my neighbor as myself? During the Mass, I kept thinking, “There’s something that you don’t understand- I’m having a hard time loving myself here, much less certain “neighbors.” I find it ironic that I am asked to love some of the very people whose actions have challenged me to look at myself in a loving way.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm all for a talk on ways of raising healthy children- mind, body and spirit.

My daughter hosted a sleepover a few weeks ago for a group of 5 girls. I was woken up at 1 a.m. by my daughter asking me to come down to talk to a group of crying young ladies.

One girl was explaining to the others how hurt she was by someone's comment about her mother. She went on to talk about her feeling "less than" b/c she had no father and "everyone knew it." In order to console their friend, each girl began to share their "less than" feelings as well. In this process, all became distraught to the point where intervention was required.

One child talked about why she sometimes behaves (her words) "like a slut." Another talked about how, b/c she's a little heavier than some others, she eats little at school then binges at home. It went on like this with each child having a significant issue eating away at their self worth. I found myself saying the very words my mother (even recently) has said to me, "I wish you could see yourself the way I see you."

Our kids need help, but our parents need even more help in understanding how to help them.

At 6:53 PM, Blogger CynthiaBC said...

I second fran's suggestion for a talk on the Trinity. I just finished slogging through that section of Aquinas's Compendium of Theology, and it left me with my eyes crossed.

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Tom said...

I heard confessions for 4 hours last year on DMS – people really wanted their indulgences!

If you've got four free hours next Friday night, you should remind everyone this week that they can gain a plenary indulgence (the usual conditions obtaining) by piously praying the Stations of the Cross (they can do this by themselves, or with the parish at 7 pm on Friday).

Or by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour (what do you know, that's at 7:30 on Friday!).

Or, for that matter, by praying the Rosary in a church (again, by themselves, or with the parish after any 8:30 am daily Mass).

Or simply reading the Bible devoutly for half an hour.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church ashes are received kneeling at the alter. Words from Gen. 3:19 are spoken. "Dust you are and dust you shall return." This is explained as an early Jewish practice as an external mark of penitence and suggests cleansing and renewal.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 4:40

I think that you will find this article from Sunday's (March 22nd)
Washington Post Magazine a good read.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 5:21-
Thank you for offering that article, it was inspiring and also quite humbling.

I’ve had a hard time forgiving myself in a number of things. When another hurts me, I look inward- thinking I must deserve betrayal, disdain, distance- whatever. It begins a whole cycle of self hatred that is hard to break.

I listened to Stations on Friday (really listened). Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion is a lesson about the beauty in sacrifice but also about a way to see myself, others and understand human nature in general. Now I get to choose what to do next. It’s really that simple.

I realized something else too- about loving those neighbors who trouble me- I CAN pray for another with whom I have conflict. I knew “others” could, but didn’t think I could- at least not sincerely. So, last night, I began my prayer for one particular person by saying, “God, I am having a hard time praying for him, but I’m going to do it anyway because I trust in your mercy, especially because mine is so far from perfect.”

I did walk away feeling lighter. Strange thing, that power of prayer!!

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you anon 1:33
I also had trouble praying for someone. I did not find the article in the post. But I will keep the prayer you said and use it often.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger fran said...

Maybe I am stating the obvious, but I think Jesus' reply to his disciples, in Sunday's gospel reading, " is so that the works of God might be made visible through him," also provides an answer to our questions on why we should forgive, and why there is suffering. It might even answer the question, "why pray?"

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should also say the flip side of trusting in God’s mercy is also trusting in His justice. On Ash Wednesday Fr, Mike spoke about giving up things for Lent. One thing he suggested was giving up a negative opinion or judgment of another. I took that one to heart and it has been the Lenten sacrifice that has most challenged me. It’s been a beneficial challenge, though, for the fact that I struggle with it on a regular basis (sometimes daily) shows me what an incredible force that’s been in my life.

There’s a phrase often used by many here, “Giving it up to God.” During this Lent, that has been the most practical thing for me. I don’t need to judge others. It isn’t my place. God’s judgment is the only that matters and the only that is truly righteous. My life is so much more peaceful when I decide to let God do His thing.

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ve been a little preoccupied with the idea, concept, meaning of the word “love” as we all so often use it. Then, I read something that helped me. What does it mean when Jesus stresses that we should “love” one another? I read, that whatever love means now, it once meant fidelity. The questions suggested to gauge whether one is being “loving” (in this sense) were-

Am I faithful, reliable and responsive, do I give my all or even want to give my all, OR do I do the minimum to fulfill the barest responsibility?

Loving a neighbor can mean faithfully fulfilling responsibilities to them. That explanation is doable.


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