Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday
by Rev. James Luke Meagher, 1883

The fast of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts till Easter Sunday. During this time there are forty-six days, but as we do not fast on the six Sundays falling in this time, the fast lasts for forty days. For that reason it is called the forty days of Lent. In the Latin language of the Church it is called the Quadragesima, that is, forty. St. Peter, the first Pope, instituted the forty days of Lent. During the forty-six days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we are to spend the time in fasting and in penance for our sins, building up the temple of the Lord within our hearts, after having come forth from the Babylon of this world by the rites and the services of the Septuagesima season. And as of old we read that the Jews, after having been delivered from their captivity in Babylon, spent forty-six years in building their temple in place of the grand edifice raised by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, thus must we rebuild the temple of the Holy Ghost, built by God at the moment of our baptism, but destroyed by the sins of the past year. Again in the Old Testament the tenth part of all the substance of the Jews was given to the Lord (Exod. xxli. 29). Thus we must give him the tenth part of our time while on this earth. For forty days we fast, but taking out the Sundays of Lent, when there is no fast, it leaves thirty-six days, nearly the tenth part of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. According to Pope Gregory from the first Sunday of Lent to Easter, there are six weeks, making forty-two days, and when we take from Lent the six Sundays during which we do not fast, we have left thirty-six days, about the tenth part of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

The forty days of fasting comes down to us from the Old Testament, for we read that Moses fasted forty days on the mount (Exod. xxiv. et xxxiv. 28). We are told that Elias fasted for forty days (III. Kings xix. 8), and again we see that our Lord fasted forty days in the desert (Math. iv.; Luke ix). We are to follow the example of these great men of the old law. But in order to make up the full fast of forty days of Moses, of Elias and of our Lord, Pope Gregory commanded the fast of Lent to begin on Ash Wednesday before the first Sunday of the Lenten season.

Christ began his fast of forty days after his baptism in the Jordan, on Epiphany, the twelfth of January, when he went forth into the desert. But we do not begin the Lent after Epiphany, because there are other feasts and seasons in which to celebrate the mysteries of the childhood of our Lord before we come to his fasting, and because during these forty days of Lent we celebrate the forty years of the Jews in the desert, who, when their wanderings were ended, they celebrated their Easter, while we hold ours after the days of Lent are finished. Again, during Lent, we celebrate the passion of our Lord, and as after His passion came His resurrection, thus we celebrate the glories of His resurrection at Easter.

During the services of Lent we read so often the words: “Humble your heads before the Lord,” and “let us bend our knees,” because it is the time when we should humble ourselves before God and bend our knees in prayers. After the words, “Let us bend our knees,” comes the word, “Arise.” These words are never said on Sunday, but only on week days, for Sunday is dedicated to the resurrection of our Lord. Pope Gregory says: “Who bends the knee on Sunday denies God to have risen.” We bend our knees and prostrate ourselves to the earth in prayer, to show the weakness of our bodies, which are made of earth; to show the weakness of our minds and imagination, which we cannot control; to show our shame for sin, for we cannot lift our eyes to heaven; to follow the example of our Lord, who came down from heaven and prostrated himself on the ground in the garden when in prayer (Matt. xxvi. 39); to show that we were driven from Paradise and that we are prone towards earthly things; to show that we follow the example of our father in the faith, Abraham, who, falling upon the earth, adored the Lord (Gen. xviii. 2). This was the custom from the beginning of the Christian Church, as Origen says: “The holy prophets when they were surrounded with trials fell upon their faces, that their sins might be purged by the affliction of their bodies.” Thus following the words of St. Paul: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephes. iii. 14),” we prostrate ourselves and bend our knees in prayer. From Ash Wednesday to Passion Sunday the Preface of Lent is said every day, unless there comes a feast with a Preface of its own. That custom was in vogue as far back as the twelfth century.

At other times of the year, the clergy say the Office of Vespers after noon, but an ancient Council allowed Vespers to be commenced after Mass. This is when the Office is said altogether by the clergy in the choir. The same may be done by each clergyman when reciting privately his Office. This cannot be done on the Sundays of Lent, as they are not fasting days. The “Go, the dismissal is at hand,” is not said, but in its place, “Let us bless the Lord,” for, from the earliest times the clergy and the people remained in the church to sing the Vesper Office and to pray during this time of fasting and of penance.

We begin the fast of Lent on Wednesday, for the most ancient traditions of the Church tell us that while our Lord was born on Sunday, he was baptized on Tuesday, and began his fast in the desert on Wednesday. Again, Solomon began the building of his great temple on Wednesday, and we are to prepare our bodies by fasting, to become the temples of the Holy Ghost, as the Apostle says, “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you (I. Cor. iii. 16)?” To begin well the Lent, one of the old Councils directed all the people with the clergy to come to the church on Ash Wednesday to assist at the Mass and the Vesper Offices and to give help to the poor, then they were allowed to go and break their fast.

The name Ash Wednesday comes from the ceremony of putting ashes on the heads of the clergy and the people on this day. Let us understand the meaning of this rite. When man sinned by eating in the garden the forbidden fruit, God drove him from Paradise with the words: “For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return (Gen. iii. 19).” Before his sin, Adam was not to die, but to be carried into heaven after a certain time of trial here upon this earth. But he sinned, and by that sin he brought upon himself and us, his children, death. Our bodies, then, are to return to the dust from which God made them, to which they are condemned by the sin of Adam. What wisdom the Church shows us when she invites us by these ceremonies to bring before our minds the dust and the corruption of the grave by putting ashes on our heads. We see the great men of old doing penance in sackcloth and ashes. Job did penance in dust and ashes (Job ii. 12). By the mouth of His prophet the Lord commanded the Jews “in the house of the dust sprinkle yourselves with dust (Mich. i. 10).” Abraham said, “I will speak to the Lord, for I am dust and ashes (Gen xviii. 27).” Joshua and all the ancients of Israel fell on their faces before the Lord and put dust upon their heads (Joshua vii. 6). When the ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines, the soldier came to tell the sad story with his head covered with dust (I Kings iv. 12).

When Job’s three friends came and found him in such affliction, “they sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven (Job ii. 12).” “The sorrows of the daughters of Israel are seen in the dust upon their heads (Lam. ii. 10).” Daniel said his prayers to the Lord his God in fasting, sackcloth and ashes (Dan. ix. 3). Our Lord tells us that if in Tyre and Sidon had been done the miracles seen in Judea, that they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes (Matt. xi. 21; Luke x. 13). When the great city will be destroyed, its people will cry out with grief, putting dust upon their heads (Apoc. xviii. 19). From these parts of the Bible, the reader will see that dust and ashes were used by the people of old as a sign of deep sorrow for sin, and that when they fasted they covered their heads with ashes. From them the Church copied these ceremonies which have come down to us. And on this day, when we begin our fast, we put ashes on our heads with the words, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return (Gen. iii. 19).”

In the beginning of the Church the ceremony of putting the ashes on the heads of the people was only for those who were guilty of sin, and who were to spend the season of Lent in public penance. Before Mass they came to the church, confessed their sins, and received from the hands of the clergy the ashes on their heads. Then the clergy and all the people prostrated themselves upon the earth and there recited the seven penitential psalms. Rising, they formed into a procession with the penitents walking barefooted. When they came back the penitents were sent out of the church by the bishop, saying : “We drive you from the bosom of the Church on account of your sins and for your crimes, as Adam, the first man was driven from Paradise because of his sin.” While the clergy were singing those parts of Genesis, where we read that God condemned our first parents to be driven from the garden and condemned to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, the porters fastened the doors of the church on the penitents, who were not allowed to enter the temple of the Lord again till they finished their penance and came to be absolved on Holy Thursday (Gueranger, Le Temps de la Septuagesima, p. 242). After the eleventh century public penance began to be laid aside, but the custom of putting ashes on the heads of the clergy became more and more common, till at length it became part of the Latin Rite. Formerly they used to come up to the altar railing in their bare feet to receive the ashes, and that solemn notice of their death and of the nothingness of man. In the twelfth century the Pope and all his court came to the Church of St. Sabina, in Rome, walking all the way in his bare feet, from whence the title of the Mass said on Ash Wednesday is the Station at St. Sabina.

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