Ash Wednesday ends Carnival season

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 6, 2006


Managing Editor

LAPLACE — Although Ash Wednesday is not a Catholic holy day of obligation, more than 2,600 people came to St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church to receive their ash smudge on their foreheads.

The Rev. Billy O’Riordan noted that some who come are not even Catholics, but they receive the ashes as part of an annual tradition.

Ash Wednesday, or more properly the Day of Ashes, is considered important, as it starts the Lenten season. According to studies, the first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday is around 960, and in the 12th century people began using palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday for ashes.

O’Riordan said that many people who seldom come to Church for the rest of the year may make a concerted effort to come for ashes. &#8220For some, it’s more important than the sacraments,” he added.

How did this practice become such an important part of the lives of so many believers? Who came up with the idea for this rather odd ritual? How does one explain the tradition of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces?

Those who do not share our customs often make a point of telling us that we have something on our foreheads, assuming we would want to wash it off, but many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day.

References to the practice are found even in the Old Testament, where the prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: &#8220O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26).

The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: &#8220Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Is 58:5).

The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel’s repentance: &#8220I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3).

Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God’s command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, word of his preaching was carried to the king of Nineveh. &#8220When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jon 3:6).

In the book of Judith, it is noted: &#8220And 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).

And, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: &#8220That 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: &#8220Woe 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).

Despite all these references, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first thousand years of Church history. The first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960.

At the beginning of the 11th century, it was noted 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.

In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.

This whole process was modeled on the conversion journey of the catechumens, because the Church saw falling into serious sin after Baptism as an indication that a person had not really been converted. Penance was a second attempt at true conversion. Early Church fathers even called Penance a &#8220second Baptism.”

Lent developed in the Church as the whole community prayed and fasted for the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism.

At the same time, those members of the community who were already baptized prepared to renew their baptismal promises at Easter, thus joining the catechumens in seeking to deepen their own conversion.

By the Middle Ages, the main emphasis shifted to the passion and death of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for the renewal of Lent, recovering its ancient baptismal character. This recovery was significantly advanced by the restoration of the catechumenate in 1972.

As the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a call to the conversion journey that marks the season. As the catechumens enter the final stage of their preparation for the Easter sacraments, all are called to walk with them to renew their baptismal promises when Easter arrives.