Catholic History

Ash Wednesday.

THE first day, according to our present observance, of the forty days fast of Lent. But that it did not come within the quadragesimal period in primitive times we know from the testimony of Gregory the Great, who, in speaking of the fast, describes it as of thirtysix days' duration that is, as extending over six weeks, from the first Sunday in Lent to Easter Day, omitting Sundays. Thirtysix days are nearly a tenth part of the year, and thus, by observing the fast, Christians were thought to render a penitential tithe of their lives to God. Lent, therefore, at the end of the sixth century, began on the first Sunday, and we know from the Sacramentary of Gelasius that the practice was the same at the end of the fifth century. At what time Ash Wednesday and the three following days were added to the fast has not been precisely ascertained. It is true that in the Sacramentary of Pope Gregory there is a Mass for Ash Wednesday under the heading "Feria IV., caput jejunii " (beginning, of the fast); whence it might be inferred that Pope Gregory, in spite of the words cited above, had himself before his death sanctioned the alteration in question. But this would be an unsafe conclusion, for one of the best MSS. of the Sacramentary does not contain this heading. However this may be, a Capitulary of the Church of Toulon (714) and the liturgical work of Amaury (about 820) describe the Lenten usage as identical with our own. There can be no difficulty in understanding the motive of the change; for by the addition of the four days preceding the first Sunday, the number of fasting days before Easter (the Sundays being omitted) becomes exactly forty, and accords with the fasts recorded of Moses and Elias, and with that of our Saviour in the wilderness of Judea.

The office for Ash Wednesday opens with the solemn ceremony which has given the day its name.1 After an introit and four collects, in which pardon and mercy are implored for the penitent, the faithful approach and kneel at the altar rails, and the priest puts ashes on the forehead of each, saying, "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris" (Remember, man, that thou art dust, and shalt return to dust). The ashes are obtained by burning the palms of the previous year. The Lenten pastorals of Bishops, regulating the observance of the season, usually prescribe that the fast on Ash Wednesday shall be more rigorously kept than on any other day in Lent except the last four days of Holy Week.

The administration of the ashes was not originally made to all the faithful, but only to public penitents. These had to appear before the church door on the first day of Lent, in penitential garb and with bare feet. Their penances were there imposed upon them; then they were brought into the church before the bishop, who put ashes on their heads, saying, besides the words "Memento," etc., - "age poenitentiam ut habeas vitam aeternam," Repent (or, do penance), that thou mayst have eternal life." He then made them an address, after which he solemnly excluded them from the church. Out of humility and affection, friends of the penitents, though not in the same condition, used to join themselves to them, expressing in their outward guise a similar contrition, and offering their foreheads also to be sprinkled with ashes. The number of these persons gradually increased, until at length the administration of ashes was extended to the whole congregation, and the rite took its present form. ("Dict. of Antiq." Smith and Cheetham; Kossing, in Wetzer and Welte.)


A NAME given to the sprinkling of the altar, clergy, and people with holy water. at the beginning of High Mass by the celebrant. The name is taken from the words, "Asperges me," "Thou shalt wash me, O Lord, with hyssop," etc., with which the priest begins the ceremony. During the Easter season the antiphon "Vidi aquam" is substituted. This custom of sprinkling the people with holy water is mentioned in the Canon of a synod quoted by Hincmar of Rheims, who lived at the beginning of the ninth century.


The Blessed Virgin was preserved from corruption. The Church signifies her belief in this fact by celebrating the feast of her Assumption on the fifteenth of August. There is no distinct assertion of the corporal assumption in the prayers of the feast, but it is plain that the Church encourages and approves this belief from the fact that she selects for the lessons during the octave a passage from St. John Damascene in which the history of this corporal assumption is given in detail. This pious belief is recommended by its intrinsic reasonableness, for surely it is natural to suppose that our Lord did not suffer that sacred body in which He Himself had dwelt and from which He had formed His own sacred humanity to become a prey to corruption. It is confirmed by the testimonies of St. Andrew of Crete, of St. John Damascene, and of many ancient Martyrologies and Missals, cited by Butler in his note on this feast. It is, moreover, a striking fact that, notwithstanding the zeal of the early Church in collecting and venerating relics, no relics of the Blessed Virgin's body have ever been exhibited. Much weight, too, must be given to the common sentiment of the faithful. "Admirable," says Petavius, "is the admonition of Paulinus of Nola, an author of the greatest weight, who bids us adhere to the common voice of the faithful, since the spirit of God breathes upon them all."

The feast, according to Butler, was celebrated before the sixth century in the East and West. The Greeks called it koimesis or metastasis; the Latins, dormitio, pausatio, transitus, assumptio.

1 In Frence Mercredi des Cendres; in German Aschermittwoche.

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