“Sackcloth and ashes” is a familiar phrase, arising from a medieval custom of humbling oneself in public before God or the Church community to beg forgiveness. But dust or ashes go even further back as sign of penitance and mourning to the time of Moses and the Old Testament.
Within Christian churches today, the custom continues in the application of blessed ashes to the foreheads of congregants in the sign of the cross — when an intonation “remember that you art dust and unto dust you shalt return” is given by the officiant.
The following is from the Website: Women for Faith and Family
Ash Wednesday – Collects and Readings
protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this day holy by our self-denial.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. +Amen
Father in heaven,
the light of Your truth bestows sight
to the darkness of sinful eyes
May this season of repentance
bring us the blessing of Your forgiveness
and the gift of your light. +Amen.
First Reading: Joel 2:12-18
“Yet even now”, says the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments”. Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord weep and say, “Spare thy people, O Lord, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?”
Then the Lord became jealous for His land, and had pity on His people. The Lord answered and said to His people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.
Second Reading: II Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
Working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6;16-18
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast
with suggestions for family observance of the season
“The main current of Lent must flow through the interior man, through hearts and consciences. The essential effort of repentance consists in this. In this effort the human determination to be converted to God is invested with the predisposing grace of conversion and, at the same time, of forgiveness and of spiritual liberation”.
This reflection by Pope John Paul II in Lent of 1979, recorded in a collection of his meditations, The Light of Christ, indicates the attitude with which we should approach our observance of this penitential season — a season that begins with a sign of repentance so ancient as to be almost lost in antiquity, and continues with penitential action equally ageless.
Putting ashes on our heads as a form of penitence is a practice inherited from Jewish tradition. In Old Testament times, fast days expressed sorrow for sins and the desire to make atonement to the Father. Ashes, for Jews and Christians alike, are a sign of repentance, sorrow, and mourning. The King of Nineveh believed the prophecy of Jonah and fasted forty days wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes to save the city, and ordered the people to do so, too [Jonah 3:4-10]. Jeremiah calls Israel to “wallow in ashes” of repentance [Jeremiah 6:26]. Abraham speaks of being unworthy to speak with God because he is “but dust and ashes” [Gen 2:7] — being man, he is created from dust. Jesus also refers to this symbol in Matthew 11:21, “Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
The ashes imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our unworthiness and sinfulness sinfulness that corrupts and stains us and leads to death (we return to the dust from whence we came.) Ashes remind us of our original sin and our need of redemption our need to be cleansed of sin and made worthy of Salvation. This is why the priest says, as he imposes ashes on our foreheads, “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return” [Genesis 3:19] or Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel. [Mark 1:15]
We cannot appreciate God’s infinite mercy if we do not realize we need mercy. We cannot understand salvation apart from our recognition of our need to be saved, rescued, from something namely our sin, which otherwise separates us forever from God. Ashes remind us of this need. When we wear the ashes on our heads, we also acknowledge the sacrifice of Christ, who forever substituted His own death for the “burnt offerings” made by Old Testament priests to atone for the sins of the people.
On Jewish fast days, or days of atonement, the penitent customarily wore sackcloth (burlap), placed ashes on his head, and went barefoot. These traditions associated with penance continued to be observed by the early Christians, although Jesus warned against ostentatious public displays of penance [see Matthew 6:16-18]. In the New Testament, fasting had similar significance, but fast times were also a time of intensified prayer and willingness to abide by the will of Christ and the Father who sent Him.
We also fast because of 1) our sorrow at the loss of the Lord: “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away, and then shall they fast” [Luke 5:33-35]; 2) our intention of giving our Christian life more depth and more seriousness of purpose. Pope Leo the Great says in his forty-second sermon: “While men are distracted by the many cares of life, their religious hearts are necessarily defiled by the dust of the world”; and 3) the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter: for the renewal of our baptismal vows, and for Easter Communion.
According the Didache, a second-century document that is an important record of early Christian beliefs and practices, Christians were to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Emphasis on seasonal fasting became more pronounced in the second and third centuries when a more strict fast was observed from Good Friday until Easter. Eventually this shorter fast developed into the forty-day fast.
In 1099, Pope Urban II called the first day of Lent Feria quarta cinerum or Ash Wednesday. During the early centuries of the Church only persons who had committed grave sins received ashes and were asked to do public penance which usually lasted until Holy Thursday when they were reconciled to the Church through confession and the reception of Holy Communion. The custom, as early as the fourth century, was to “quarantine” (from the word for “forty”) or separate the penitents from the rest of the community during the forty days of Lent. Ashes were a sign of this separation. The penitential quarantine applied to poor and rich alike.
Fasting and Penance Today
In the same 1979 Lenten message quoted above, Pope John Paul II said,
“Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy. Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth. Contemporary man seems to have lost, to some extent, the flavor of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one’s interior being. Our civilization especially in the West closely connected as it is with the development of science and technology, catches a glimpse of the need for intellectual and physical effort. But he has lost the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is man seen in his inner self. The whole period of Lent since it is a preparation for Easter is a systematic call to this joy that comes from the effort of patiently finding oneself again. Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort.”
The Code of Canon Law states that Fridays throughout the year and in the time of Lent are penitential days for the entire Church. Although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction, in the Church, between fast (limiting food to one full meal a day, with two smaller meals allowed) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat.) Abstinence from meat on Fridays as the universal form of penance on all Fridays is no longer mandatory. We may choose another way of observing the Church’s requirement for acts of penance on Fridays, but we are not to neglect it, either.
Since the change in the abstinence rules, some people have become confused about the requirement to observe penitential days. As a result, the discipline of fasting (or abstaining from meat) or any form of regular penance has all but disappeared. Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) has sharply declined, as well.
Both fast and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For the record, rules of the Church in the United States about fasting and abstinence in effect since 1966 state that:
“Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole.” (ref. Canons 1249-1253, Code of Canon Law)
(See also Fast and Abstinence page for more information on the practice.)
Fasting and abstinence, which foster self-discipline and self-denial and other beneficial spiritual exercises, are strongly encouraged as voluntary practices at any time of the year. But it will be the responsibility of families, as the “domestic Church”, to foster this spiritually energizing practice, not only during the required Lenten days, but at other times as well. To fast willingly, in reparation for our own sins and for others, can transform not only our own lives, but the life and vitality of the larger community.
As Pope Leo I stressed in the 5th century, the purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity that joins us to Christ an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice. Fasting can heighten our understanding of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and of our total dependence on His love and mercy.
Farewell to Alleluia and Gloria
During the penitential seasons of the Church, the Gloria and the Alleluia are not said or sung. The Gloria is sung only at the Mass on Holy Thursday, usually with great ceremony, organ and sometimes trumpets, and often with the ringing of bells. After the singing of the Gloria, musical instruments are to be silent until the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil. (Catholic families might imitate this solemn silence by not playing instrumental music in their homes at this time.)
In the Middle Ages and throughout the 16th century, the “burying” of the Alleluia was a solemn ritual on Septuagesima Sunday. A procession of children carrying a wooden plaque bearing the word “Alleluia” laid it at the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, covering it with a purple cloth. It remained there until Easter at the Gospel procession, when the plaque was carried as the priest intoned the three Alleluias before the Easter Gospel. In Paris, a straw figure inscribed with the word was carried out of the choir at the end of the service and burned in the church yard.
Although the practice of literally removing the Alleluia from the Church may have disappeared, even today in some parish celebrations of the Easter Vigil an Alleluia card is carried in procession and placed in front of the altar during the singing of the first Alleluias before the Gospel for Easter.
The hymn Alleluia, Song of Gladness and the one that follows date from the early 9th and 10th centuries; both refer to the farewell to the Alleluia in the liturgy.
From the Mozaribic Liturgy of Spain
Stay with us today, Alleluia,
When the morning rises,
thou shalt go thy way.
May the Lord be thy custodian, Alleluia.
And the angel of God accompany thee.
May the Lord keep thee alive
And protect thee from every evil.
The mountains and hills shall rejoice, Alleluia,
While they await thy glory.
Thou goest, Alleluia; may the way be blessed,
Until thou shalt return with joy.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Suggestions for Families
Lent is a time for each of us to increase our knowledge of the “faith that is in us” in order that we can fulfill our vocation as Christians to extend this rich blessing of faith to others. We accomplish personal renewal and revitalization of our faith through penance, prayer and instruction.
The value of self-denial must be learned early in a person’s life. Lent provides an excellent opportunity to teach our children the necessity of self-denial in our permissive society.
The whole family will observe the Lenten fast according to the Church. Fasting means restricting the food we eat, and also the size and number of meals. Abstinence means abstaining from eating meat.
Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday as well as on all Fridays during Lent. The strict fast for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday means that we will eat only one main meal on that day, with the other two being very light (and no snacking).
A spirit of fasting can include restriction of luxuries such as television watching, shopping and going out with friends. The entire family could choose main “give-ups” that all will observe (for example, desserts, television, or a favorite show). Each child can select additional things to “fast” from during Lent maybe a video, or candy. (No fair giving up homework or not hitting your sister!)
We can give away clothing or possessions to those in need or we can give time to the Lord by volunteering our services. It would be good to involve children in this special kind of giving.
There are special foods for Lent. Hot cross buns are traditinally eaten on Good Friday, for example. (An interesting recipe book is A Continual Feast, by Evelyn Birge Vitz, published by Ignatius Press.)
A food that symbolizes prayer and fasting is the pretzel (from the Latin word, bracellæ, “arms”.) It is a traditional Lenten bread of very ancient origin. Early Christians made the bread from flour, salt and water only, shaping it to represent the folded arms in prayer, just as they are made to this day. The German tribes who invaded Rome called the bracellæ “brezel'” or “prezel”. Pretzels are traditionally eaten throughout Lent, and in some places are especially associated with Saint Joseph’s Day [March 19] which usually falls within Lent. A recipe for soft pretzels follows:
The pretzel represents the shape of the penitent’s crossed arms, and was a traditional Lenten food in central European towns.This recipe is for a chewy soft pretzel, like those hot pretzel vendors sell.
Combine in a mixing bowl:
1 cup warm water
1 package (1 1/2 T) active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
Add and beat at least 3 minutes:
1 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
2 Tbsp soft butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
Stir in 1 1/4 cups sifted all purpose flour and knead until the dough loses its stickiness.
Let the dough rise in a covered greased bowl until it is doubled in bulk (this is called “proofing” the dough). Punch down and divide it into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope and form it into a pretzel shape. Place the pretzels on a greased baking sheet and let them rise until almost doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 475°F.
In a large non aluminum kettle, prepare a boiling solution of
4 cups water
5 tsp baking soda
With a slotted spoon, carefully lower the pretzels into the water and boil about 1 minute or until they float to the top. Return them to the greased sheet. Sprinkle them with coarse salt. (Sea salt or Kosher salt.) Bake the pretzels until they are nicely browned, about 10-12 minutes. Pretzels are best when eaten while still warm, but they may be stored in an air tight container for up to a week, or frozen. (Makes twelve 6-inch pretzels)
Special prayers and devotions
Lent is an appropriate time to begin to establish some family prayer traditions — beginning with our attending Church on Ash Wednesday, to receive the cross of ashes on our foreheads.
The family can say the following prayer for Ash Wednesday:
Heavenly Father, Let us enter the season of Lent in the spirit of joy giving ourselves to spiritual strife, cleansing our soul and body, controlling our passions, as we limit our food, living on the virtues of the Holy Spirit;
Let us persevere in our longing for Christ so as to be worthy to behold His most solemn Passion and the most holy Passover, rejoicing the while with spiritual joy. Amen
Whenever possible we can go to daily Mass during Lent, and pray more often — alone or with family members.
Make a point of taking school-age (and older) children to Eucharistic Adoration. (If your parish does not have Eucharist Adoration, consider asking your pastor about the possiblity of starting it — and volunteer to help organize it.)
The Alleluia is not recited or sung during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, children could make an Alleluia card or banner to be “buried” during Lent and displayed prominently during the Easter season. This could be made of gold paper and decorated with ribbons or flowers, as elaborately as they like. The Alleluia would reappear on Easter morning with their Easter baskets.
Initiate a practice of saying the Angelus at family meals. You can print copies of the Angelus from this web site, or order enough “holy cards” copies from WFF for your whole family (with our compliments — just tell us how many you need. Call 314-863-8385 or e-mail us.)
An ancient prayer that reminds us of the multifaceted nature of penance is the following, said by the Eastern Church during the Lenten fast. Your family might say this together after the evening meal, or before bedtime:
O Lord and Ruler of Life,
take from me the spirit of idleness, despair, cupidity, and empty talking.
Yea, O Lord grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brother.
For thou art blessed forever and ever. Amen.
[Note: If you use this prayer with children, you might have to explain that “cupidity” is greed for wealth or power, not some little winged being from a Valentine!]
Read passages in Scripture that help to explain the meaning of fasting and of penance in our lives. Here are two suggested readings:
Therefore, saith the Lord, turn ye to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil. Who knoweth if He will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him.
When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fasteth, anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but to thy Father, in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will reward thee openly. Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
For study and reflection
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Lent is a particularly appropriate time for families (as well as individuals!) to develop a Lenten reading program (reading can replace some of the television shows we’ve given up for Lent.) Also, reading aloud from the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church or from a Catholic classic every evening for half an hour can be a way of fostering family conversation about the Catholic faith. This can bear so much good fruit that it is worth the effort to organize it. (We suggest picking one evening a week for this — say Wednesdays.)
Maria von Trapp suggests that “every year we should divide our reading into three parts: something for the mind, something for the heart, something for the soul” [p. 104]. (We cannot regard mind, heart and soul as really separate, of course.)
The Holy Scripture fills all these categories. For example, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Wisdom and the Old Testament books of Law and History might be “for the mind”; Psalms, Job, and Song of Songs, “for the heart”; and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel other Old Testament prophets and the entire New Testament “for the soul”. Following are a few other suggestions for each category, and other suggestions are in the bibliography section at the end of the Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter:
Something for the mind
– Spend time with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (link on Vatican web site). It would be a very good thing if every family member who has been confirmed hadtheir own personal copy. But sections can be printed out for study.
– Read a Catholic classic such as G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Francois Mauriac’s Holy Thursday, Pascal’s Pensees, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer, Henri de Lubac’s Motherhood of the Church, or a work of Edith Stein, Paul Claudel, Cardinal Newman.
– Study Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Familiaris Consortio on the Christian family; or any of his writings, especially Original Unity of Man and Woman, Blessed are the Pure in Heart, or Reflections on Humanæ Vitæ.
Something for the heart
– Learn more about a courageous Christian of the past — there are many good new biographies, for exampe, Saint Isaac Jogues, Saint Joan of Arc, Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Teresa of Avila, or the patron saints of family members. Many pages on the Liturgical Calendaron this site can be useful for readings of the day, background, and suggestions for family observance.
– Listen to music and study art works that are part of our rich Catholic heritage (see the suggested list of music available on recordings in the bibliography section of Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter.)
Something for the soul
– Recite the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), or memorize a devotion or classic Catholic prayer, perhaps one of those found in thePrayers and Devotions section of this web site.
– Read works of great spiritual writers of the past such as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, The Way of Perfection, by Saint Teresa of Avila.
– Study contemporary spiritual writings, such as Pope John Paul II’s meditation, The Light of Christ, quoted above, Sign of Contradiction, or The Way of Christ.
– Say the Rosary – If possible, together as a family at least once a week. If there are young children, Lent is a good time to begin to teach them to say the “Hail Mary” as part of their bedtime prayers, along with the “Our Father”.