Ash Wednesday Trivia
Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation.
Lent was prepended back to Ash Wednesday so that the season would have 40 days.
In the Ordinary Form of the liturgy this is the first day that violet vestments are worn for the Lenten season.
In the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy violet vestments have been worn since Septuagesima Sunday, seven weeks before Easter.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence.
Receiving ashes is NOT the eighth sacrament.
Ash Wednesday is not celebrated in the Eastern Churches. They have already been fasting for at least a week (this is true) just to prove what a bunch of spiritual lightweights we are in the West (this isn't).
Meaning of Ashes in the Bible
A long time ago, before Larry King was born, God decided that animals weren't that great for company so he created man out of the dust of the earth. Since the Garden of Eden was a lush location it is debatable whether He used dust or loam.
It seems that even though the Bible says that man was made from dust, Abraham was quite willing to take “interpretational liberties” with the Bible by declaring that he was actually “nothing but dust AND ashes.” (Gen 18:27)
Throughout the Pentateuch (the five-sided temple in Jerusalem) there is a sacred significance given to the ashes left from burnt offerings. The books of Leviticus and Numbers both prescribe that the ashes from offerings are to be dumped outside of the camp in a place that is ceremonially clean. (Lev 4:12, 6:11, Num 19:9)
The Book of Numbers (yes, it is about as interesting as the Calculus book you bought for $90 but never opened during college), actually mentions that “[ashes] shall be kept for preparing lustral water for the Israelite community.” (Num 19:9) The lustral waters were water mixed with ash that someone who was “unclean” was required to bathe in as part of the ceremonial cleansing before being allowed back near the tabernacle.
The use of ashes for penitential purposes continues through the Old Testament with various prophets bathing in (good for the skin) and eating (it builds character) them.
Catholic Origins of Ash Wednesday
The practice of using ashes in the Catholic Church dates back to sixth century Spanish Mozarabic rite which called for a cross of ashes to be traced on the heads of the gravely ill who were entering the Order of Penitents.
It wasn't until the 10th century that an official Church text – the Romano-Germanic pontifical - called for the sprinkling of ashes on the faithful on the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent.
Originally, this practice was reserved for the Order of Penitents. These people were sinners who had been prescribed a public penance for their sins. They were required to stand outside the Church before Mass. The priest would hear their confessions, clothe them in sack cloth and sprinkle ashes on their heads.
After this ceremony, everyone would fall prostrate and recite the seven Penitential Psalms (6,31,37,50,101,129,142). Then all would walk in procession through the streets with the penitents walking barefoot at the back.
When the procession returned to the church the bishop would address the penitents with these words: “Behold, we drive you from the doors of the church by reason of your sins and crimes, as Adam, the first man, was driven out of paradise because of his transgression.” The choir then sang responsories from the Book of Genesis that told of the punishments on mankind for disobeying God. At the conclusion the doors were shut and the penitents were required to stay out of the church until Maundy Thursday.
This sure makes “Say one Hail Mary and one Our Father” seem like a piece of cake, doesn't it? Go to confession!
By the 11th century the custom of sprinkling ashes was widespread enough that Abbot Aelfric, an English monk, mentioned it in his writings. The practice of public penance also began to decline during this century but the practice of receiving ashes while barefoot spread throughout the Church.
Pope Urban II, apart from calling for the first Crusade, spent most of his time trying to decide what to do with the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. After years of deliberation he decided to make this day a universal day for the faithful to be marked with ashes. The phrase “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return.”, was used from the earliest times and proved that the Church believed God really knew what ingredient He used to make Adam and that Abraham had no business passing himself off as a biologist.
It wasn't until later that some liturgist decided to actually name this day “Ash Wednesday.”
In the 12th century the Pope and the cardinals would walk barefoot from the church of St. Anastasia to the church of St. Sabina (about 1km) where the stat ional Mass for for Ash Wednesday was celebrated.
It was also during the 12th century that it became a common practice to burn the palms from the previous Palm Sunday to create the ashes, making this the first recycling project in recorded history.
Ash Wednesday in the Extraordinary Form of the Liturgy
In the Extraordinary form of the liturgy the Ash Wednesday Mass is preceded by the blessing of the ashes. This ceremony includes the reading of four ancient prayers and the sprinkling and incensing of the ashes. The ashes are then distributed before the start of the Mass.
The various antiphons and the epistle are from the downtrodden but hopeful book of the Prophet Joel. It's hard to be upbeat describing locust plagues, and Mr. Roger's sweater is not the first thing that comes to mind when I hear “Let us change our garments for ashes and sackcloth.” (Joel 2:13)
Ash Wednesday in the Ordinary Form of the Liturgy
The Ordinary Form of the liturgy has many similarities to the Extraordinary Form but does have some notable differences:
The blessing of the ashes takes place following the homily instead of before Mass.
Incense is no longer used to bless the ashes.
Two of the four prayers of blessing have been dropped and the remaining two have been abbreviated.
A new optional admonition “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” has been added to the application of ashes.
Thoughts on the Ash Wednesday Gospel
“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.” (NAB)
This appears to be a warning from Christ to not do exactly what is done on Ash Wednesday proving that, yes, the Catholic Church is the anti-Christ. Or is it? Christ admonished the hypocrites for putting ashes on themselves while they went out in public for the purpose of looking “most righteous” for their fasting.
On Ash Wednesday ashes are put on us by the priest to remind US that we are mere mortals, not so we can show off.
Further, when the practice started back in the 6th century it was a mark on those who were banned from the church – not exactly a holier-than-thou mark. By the time it became a universal custom Europe was basically 100% Catholic so it was pretty hard to do one-upmanship by wearing ashes since EVERYONE was wearing them.
So are we a bunch of righteous hypocrites? If you go to work after Ash Wednesday services and start muttering about the “unclean” around you, you probably need to work on that whole humility thing some more.
Where do Ash Wednesday ashes come from?
In the past, individual parishes burned the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Today, with few people having 55 gallon oil drums readily available, many parishes have outsourced their ash production to a few church supply companies. In order to provide enough ash for a parish (it takes about a pound of ash to bless 4,000 righteous hypocrites, 2 pounds if you get an enthusiastic priests who likes to run the cross across someone's entire bald head) these companies burn entire palm trees. It takes an entire tree to produce three pounds of ash. You can read more about the current sources of Ash Wednesday ashes at the LA Times.
Other Ash Wednesday Resources:
The Liturgical Year, Vol4, Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., Loreto Publications, 2000
Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Fr. Adrian Fortescue, Saint Austin Press, 1996
The New Marian Missal, Fr. Sylvester P. Juergens, S.M., Loreto Publications, 1958
The Daily Roman Missal, Midwest Theological Forum, 1993