Ash Wednesday: “be not like the hypocrites”

In a rare manifestation of true continuity between the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo, both readings for Mass on Ash Wednesday are taken, respectively, from Joel 2 and Matthew 6. We can rightfully say, therefore, that the thematic content of Ash Wednesday in the older rite should be identical with that of the newer rite.

Even now, says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God. Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people, notify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare, O LORD, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them! Why should they say among the peoples,‘Where is their God?’”

As intended, this first reading has a thematic connection to the Gospel of the day:

At that time, Jesus said to His disciples, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume, and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consumes, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

Every time I hear this Gospel, the thought of keeping ashes on my forehead for the rest of the day becomes more and more uncomfortable. In recent years, the readings have tacitly shamed me into cleaning my face immediately after Mass on Ash Wednesday. I believe that doing so constitutes a true return to the spirit of the Gospel.

Now, lest anyone should reject my proposal as a “misunderstanding” of Ash Wednesday’s significance, I first ask the reader to read my entire reasoning before jumping to conclusions.

Yes, I know that ashes have been a sign of repentance and mourning even in the Old Testament. A penitent Job tells the Lord, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). In 2 Samuel 13, “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.” In Esther 4, we read that

When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes. When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them.

Isaiah 61 says that the prophet of the Lord will “provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”. In Jeremiah 6, the Lord says, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.” In Ezekiel 27, the prophet tells the people of Tyre that the nations “will raise their voice and cry bitterly over you; they will sprinkle dust on their heads and roll in ashes.” Finally, in Daniel 9, the prophet “turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes”.

The practice was carried over into the Christian liturgy. In the tenth century, an Anglo-Saxon abbot named Aelfric wrote, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” Christ himself refers to this ancient practice in Matthew’s Gospel: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

To clothe oneself in ashes and sackcloth was firstly a self-imposed regimen of austerity for the individual, and only secondarily an external sign of penitence. We must read this practice in the context of the ancient world which did not enjoy the fruits of modern medicine, modern nutrition, and modern clothing. To completely cover oneself in sackcloth and ashes for extended periods is not only incredibly rigorous and uncomfortable; in the ancient world, this practice exposed the penitent to severe illness and deadly infection. Coupled with fasting, the danger to one’s health became very real. This was radical mortification, a true flight from the pleasures of the world, and a profound reminder of one’s mortality. It has none of the exhibitionist tendencies which so often mark modern attendees of Ash Wednesday services.

For the Christian, the Old Testament ritual of ashes took on the symbolism of spiritual death and burial, hence the traditional formula at the imposition of ashes, taken from Genesis 1: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris (“Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return”). This symbolism of death and burial is most fully exhibited in the traditional means of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, that is, on top of the head, and not on the forehead as is common today. In fact, this is still the normative means of receiving ashes in Rome and throughout the world, and it remains the only means of receiving ashes in the traditional rite. The anomalous practice of receiving ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross is largely a phenomenon of the post-Conciliar Anglophone world. We moderns, who have lost our sense of penitential austerity, no longer dress ourselves in sackcloth and ashes as did our ancient forebears; we settle for a symbolic gesture which nevertheless retains the core truth of what our predecessors professed throughout the centuries– that we are dust, and that to dust shall we return.

Ash Wednesday 2014: Jozef Cardinal Tomko, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Sabina, imposes ashes on Pope Francis
Ash Wednesday 2013: Angelo Cardinal Comastri, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, imposes ashes on Pope Benedict XVI
Which method of imposing ashes is correct? In both the old missal and the new, the Latin verb imponere is used to describe the distribution of ashes: in both missals, we find sacerdos… imponit cineres. This is the same verb used in the vesture of the amice before Mass (Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis…) and in the granting of the miter at the consecration of a new bishop in the older missal (Imponimus, Domine, capiti huius antistitis…). The word imponere thus denotes placing something upon the top of the head, and not on the forehead (in which case a form of the Latin noun frons would be seen in the rubrics, instead of the noun caput). In the 2011 English translation of the Novus Ordo, the rubrics correctly translate the underlying Latin by reading “the Priest places ashes on the head (capite)”. Furthermore, if we argue from tradition, we can say that since there is no rubrical change from the old missal to new missal, the traditional method of imposing ashes still should be the norm.With the promulgation of Paul VI’s missal, a new formula was introduced for the imposition of ashes (without revoking the old formula, which can still be used): Paenitemini, et credite Evangelio (“Repent and believe in the Gospel”). In practice, this new formula has sadly overtaken the older one in great measure. The explicit removal of a reference to death (in my estimation) has paved the way for the triumphalist perversion of Ash Wednesday which, in English-speaking countries, culminates in the imposition of ashes on the forehead rather than on top of the head. (In a similar manner, the option for white liturgical vestments at Novus Ordo funerals has led to a triumphalist presumption of salvation for the newly deceased, while mention of death’s true gravity is largely excised.) Instead of a true penitential ritual which underscores the mortality of man, Ash Wednesday has in large part become a manifestation of “look-at-me” Catholicism. The faithful will happily parade their ash-marked foreheads all Wednesday long, much like the hypocritical people condemned by Jesus in today’s Gospel. But when we are questioned about the dirt on our faces, do most of us really explain the depth and significance of this practice, its old biblical roots, its connection to the death of Christ who, as true man, also returned to the dust of the earth?

This modern grandstanding on Ash Wednesday is so pervasive in the Anglophone world that it even finds a place in respectable Catholic websites like UCatholic, who now sells the shirts seen to the right. Show your penitence for the low low price of $19.97! UCatholic, desperate for relevance in the Twitter generation, shamelessly promotes this exhibitionist interpretation of Ash Wednesday. How tragically far removed is this shirt from the true spirit of Lent! How do we square this attitude with the readings of the day’s liturgy? “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” says Joel, “and return to the LORD, your God.” “When you fast,” says Jesus, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.”

The point of the ashes is not to be seen by others. Rather, the ashes symbolize our burial into the death of Christ– and this symbolism is greatly enhanced in the traditional manner of receiving ashes on top of the head. Once the ashes are imposed, this symbolism is complete. No other outward sign is necessary, “for the Father, who sees in secret”, knows the true disposition of our hearts. Moreover, any tendency toward exhibitionism is effectively thwarted if we return to the traditional manner of imposing ashes.”But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” This is the commandment of the Lord– let us abide by it.

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