"Christ lives, he has overcome death, he has overcome all these powers. We live in this certainty, in this freedom, and in this joy." (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 12 XI 2008)
"Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks the truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie." (Blessed John Paul II, Canonisation of Edith Stein, 11 X 1998)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Catholic Customs and Traditions - Ash Wednesday

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. This is the beginning of our journeying with Christ through the 40 days in the desert. But how did the practices of Ash Wednesday develop in history. Here I present an extract from the book "Catholic Customs & Traditions- a popular guide" by Greg Dues.

Ash Wednesday officially begins Lent and the Easter cycle... Ashes from burned palms saved from the previous year are placed on the forehead of parishioners. This custom of placing ashes on the heads of people and, originally, the wearing of sackcloth is an ancient penitential practice common among the Hebrew people (Jonah 3:5-9; Jeremiah 6:26, 25:34; Matthew 11:21). At first  this ritual of ashes, along with its original scriptural meaning, was not directly connected with the beginning of Lent. As early as the 300s, it was adopted by local churches as part of their practice of temporarily excommunicating or expelling public sinners from the community. These people were guilty of public sins and scandals such as apostasy, heresy, murder, and adultery ("capital" sins).
By the 7th century, this custom had expanded in some churches into a public Ash Wednesday ritual. Sinners first confessed their sins privately. Then they were presented to the bishop and publicly enrolled in the ranks of penitents in preparation for absolution on Holy Thursday. After a laying on of hands and imposition of ashes, they were expelled from the congregation in imitation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, with the reminder that death is the punishment for sin. "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). They lived apart from their families and from the rest of the parish for the forty days of Lent (thus our word "quarantine"). Dressed in sackcloth and ashes, they were identified as penitents in the congregation and sometimes on the steps of the church. Common penances required that these penitents abstain from meat, alcohol, bathing, haircuts, shaves, marriage relations, and business transactions...
During the Middle Ages, emphasis was placed on personal rather than public sin. As a result, traditions of Ash Wednesday in a mitigated form were adopted by all adult members of the parish... In recent years an alternate formula for the imposition of ashes emphasises a more positive aspect of Lent: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" (see Mark 1:15).  

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