One of the signs followed with the most devotion among Catholics in my country is the imposition of ashes. Who would have guessed? Foreheads old and young, wrinkled and complexion-challenged, even non-Catholic foreheads wear a badge of penitence. Is that something on which to build? Bottle that, and good pastors of souls will line up to buy.
125. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment.
How do people perceive this act? I suspect it is far more than a fashion statement. Catholics are given towels to wipe off baptismal water and confirmation oil. But we do not provide wiping on the Wednesday before Lent. Nor would the gesture be accepted, I think.
Do people receive ashes as an impulse to continuing conversion? When I see the elder siblings of the household and clergy, do I behold people who are convicted of their need to reform and renew? When I receive the smudge of black, am I just going through the motions? Or does burned palm touch something inside of me, drawing out the thread, the stream of baptism?
The DPPL is confident of most Christians:
Notwithstanding the secularization of contemporary society, the Christian faithful, during Lent, are clearly conscious of the need to turn the mind towards those realities which really count, which require Gospel commitment and integrity of life which, through self denial of those things which are superfluous, are translated into good works and solidarity with the poor and needy.
Most people can cite the three pillars of Lent. Many are prepared to do as Christian tradition suggests.
The citation from church law:
Those of the faithful who infrequently attend the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist should be aware of the long ecclesial tradition associating the precept of confessing grave sins and receive Holy Communion at least once during the lenten season, or preferably during Eastertide(Cf. Canon Law 989 and 920).
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site. Meanwhile, any comments on Ash Wednesday, the starting block for the great retreat that is Lent?
It’s interesting to note that the placement of the ashes varies by cultural tradition. In parts of Europe, the tradition is to mark the top of the head (probably from the time when tonsure for male clerics and monastics left them with a bald skullcap, as it were) rather than the forehead.
And people have long noted the tension between pride in showing ashes vs the Gospel pericope of the day (a memorable homily about which I recall from 35 years ago: Jesus’ admonition about not going about with one’s penances too publicly is prudent for fallen humanity, which might despair if one’s likely falling off the wagon is too public).
The longer Catholic tradition would be that, even if a pious or liturgical practice is more cultural than deeply converting, God can use the *habit* of it as a calling line for us during our lives (much as venerating false relics can still deepen faith, hope and love). This is how facile critiques of shallow ritual habits can, in fact, simply mirror the shallowness.
It’s also important to remember that poverty and need are not only material in nature: they are also emotional and spiritual. If anything, my sense is that Americans are prone to the practical and instrumental, and avoid the existential.
One question that seems largely ignored everywhere: should parishes draw on the pre-Modern Catholic tradition to revive extra emphasis on the sacrament of Reconciliation *before* Lent, so that the faithful have more opportunities to live Ash Wednesday and Lent as flowing from repentance in preparation for Easter joy?