On Ash Wednesday, we hear resounding hymns from the Book of Genesis: Remember, man, that you are ashes and to dust you will return. Ash Wednesday occurs on the first day of Lent, which comes after Shrove Tuesday and is a holy day in Christianity.
History of Ash Wednesday
The general norms of the liturgical year regarding Ash Wednesday are as follows: "Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends immediately before the Mass of the Lord's Supper. The first Wednesday of Lent is anointed with ashes; the day fasting everywhere" (Nos. 28 and 29). This instruction tells us the significance of Ash Wednesday in the liturgical year, as well as during the holy season of Lent. With Ash Wednesday, the Church begins Lent. In addition, within the liturgical structure of this day, the Church celebrates the rites of blessing and anointing the ashes.
In a liturgical tradition dating back to the 7th century, Ash Wednesday is an important day, and no one can surpass it. People also call this day "the beginning of Lent" (Caput ieiunii), or "the beginning of the 40-day fast" (Caput Quadragesima Lis). Fasting during this Season dates back to Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).
As for the rite of blessing and anointing the ashes, it has evolved over time from a penitential rite in the institution of the old public penitential practice. The liturgical history of the formation of the Rite of Penance and Reconciliation, as well as the ecclesiastical institution of certain special activities, has included the custom of leaving ashes for public penitents who have committed certain sins publicly known, such as denial of the faith, murder, adultery. . . These people are excluded from the community of believers. To be reinstated in the community, they must do public penance according to the institution of the Church. On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, these public penitents will gather in the cathedral and, after confessing their sins, will be presented with a vestment worn by the Bishop, and received the ashes on his head and on himself. They were then kicked out of the church and assigned to go to a convent to stay there and perform some penitential work that was done for them. On Holy Thursday morning, these penitents gathered in the cathedral, were reviewed by the Bishop in their penitential practice during Lent, after which he read the absolution of their sins to deliver them, harmony with the community. From here they are entitled to participate in sacramental celebrations. In Rome, in the 7th century, public penitents gathered in several of the city's tituli, as well as in the four great basilicas of St. Peter, St. Paul outside, and St. John Lateran and Our Lady the Great, to perform the ceremony as mentioned above.
The institution of public penance later ceased to exist, but the ashes ceremony was still preserved on Ash Wednesday. At first only the faithful received the ashes on them. Later, popes and faithful received ashes as a sign of repentance. In the 10th century, there was the blessing of the ashes and an accompanying prayer that imitated the structure of the Mass, that is, there was a prayer similar to the Eucharistic Prayer, and the reception of the ashes as in the celebration of Communion.
In the 11th century, also in Rome, the Pope gathered the clergy and laity at the church of Saint Anastasia. He blessed the ashes, left the ashes for everyone, then they all went in a procession to the church of Saint Sabina on the hill of Aventino. During the procession, the Pope and the congregation sang the litany of the saints. All wore robes, barefoot, to show their repentance. When arrived at the church of St. Sabina, the Pope read the absolution and the congregation sang the song "Let us change our lives, anoint us with ashes and fast and mortify, weep for our sins. Pray Our God, because he is very merciful and kind, ready to forgive all sins" (Immutemur, cf. Ge 2:13). Then he celebrated Mass. It is the first (statio) of Lent. Today, on Ash Wednesday, the Pope also comes to bless and lay ashes at the church of Saint Sabina according to the old tradition. Before that there was a procession from the church of Saint Anselm also on the hill of Aventino. At the Church of Saint Sabina, he proclaimed the Lenten message to the whole Church.
In 1091, the Council of Benevento (Southern Italy) ordered the observance of the rite of ashes for all parts of the Church. While disposing of the ashes, the priest recites the words: "I am dust and will return to dust" (Genesis 3:19). This ash is taken from the leaves and branches blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year. Before the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, the rite of blessing and disposing of ashes was celebrated before Mass. In 1970, when the revised Roman Missal was published, it was celebrated after the liturgy of the Word. In addition to the quote from the Book of Genesis, there is an additional formula for disposing of the ashes, taken from the Gospel: "Repent and receive the Good News" (Mk 1:15). With this new formula added, the symbol "ash" has taken on a new meaning as a renewal of life during Holy Lent.
In short, the rite of blessing and disposing of ashes on Ash Wednesday reminds the faithful of an important moment that is beginning to relate to their salvation, which is Lent. At the same time, this initiation rite offers the faithful a journey to follow during Lent.
That journey is to practice acts of repentance, to live charity; On the other hand, the faithful must also enter deeply into a state of contrition, reflecting on the human condition, on their mistakes and the urgent need to return and renew their lives.
Observing Ash Wednesday
To observe Ash Wednesday, depending on your beliefs and religion, you can perform different actions. If you are Catholic, then this day take time to participate in the anointing of the ashes, to perform a fast, and to repent of your actions. If you are not Catholic, you can find out more information about Ash Wednesday to improve your understanding. Share with hashtag #AshWednesday.
ObservedAsh Wednesday has been observed 46 days before Easter.
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