Wednesday, February 25, 2004


The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, which is the first day of the Lenten fast.

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

That was from the old Catholic Encyclopaedia which was compiled just before, during, and after the first world war. So there are now a great many other wonderful old things which are not now prescribed. Or, indeed, even permitted by our most reverend fathers in God. But we are still permitted to receive ashes, although one year my wife was somewhat bemused to receive instead a ha'penny nail with a purple ribbon on it and told to "do good" or some such useful advice.

But we received ashes this year, she at the 6 a.m. Mass and I at the 8 a.m. thanks to the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, one of the soundest congregations left on the planet. Our parish is mostly Hispanic and this is a very important day in that culture; the priests will hardly have time to breathe until about 9 o'clock tonight. I quote you from Sunday's bulletin:

This week we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. There will be many opportunities to receive ashes. Because of the large crowds that we are anticipating, we ask that you come to the Church only one time to receive ashes. The Masses will be celebrated at 6 a.m., 8 a.m., 12 noon, 8:30 p.m. (English) and 8:30 p.m. (Spanish - in the old Church) followed by distribution of ashes. There will be no 6:30 p.m. Mass this day.

The distribution of ashes in the afternoon will begin at 3 p.m. and continue every 30 minutes until 8:30 p.m. No one will be given ashes without participation in the ceremony beforehand. At each ceremony, there will be a collection where everyone will have a chance to help the poor in our parish. If each person who receives ashes would give $2.00 we would have enough money to cover our poor program in Lent.

Please obey the Ushers. At each ceremony there will be an examination of conscience. . . . .

We highly recommend that as a sacrifice for Christ Our Lord, all men give up drinking liquor during Lent and women buy fewer cosmetics and wear modest clothing. We remind you that ashes do not have the power to save your soul. They are only a sign of the repentance that a person has, and should inspire us to make a good confession. If you are not sorry for your sins, the ashes will have no effect, and if you die in mortal sin they will not save you. . . .