Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ash Wednesday -- belated!

One way I know I'm in the South ... whenever Ash Wednesday comes along, people tell the Catholics, "Hey, you got somethin' on yer forehead!" As Sean Connery says in The Untouchables, "Ah, the ignorance of the heathen." It almost makes me want to become Catholic just to cause trouble.

What I found myself wondering today was the origins of Ash Wednesday. Catholic Encyclopedia gives a date of at least the 8th Century. That places it probably in the early Middle Ages ... and Catholic Encyclopedia also quotes a bit from Aelfric. The main description reads:
The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

Do any Wordhoarders know more about the origins?


  1. Traditionally, the symbol of the ashes is also deeply connected with repentance and humility before God. In the Bible (esp. the OT), we find a tradition of using ashes and sack-cloths as a way to show one's contrition and humility of heart in seeking God's mercy, as found in key passages like Job 42:6, Daniel 9:3, Ezekiel , and Jonah 3:6. Two other key passages are found in the major prophets--Isaiah Isaiah 58:5 and Ezekiel 27:30--both of which are traditionally closely connected to prophecies and the life of Jesus. In fact, Jesus alludes to the passage from Ezekiel in two of the Gospels.

  2. Here is an article, from American, regarding the history of Ash Wednesday. It places the event at around 960 and places the use of of the palms of the prior year's Palm Sunday as the material used to create the ashes in the 12th century.

    Also, it appears that the Catholic Encyclopedia sets the date as a "general observance of the faithful" by 1091, as described by 18th century theologian Gian Domenico Mansi.

  3. As Aelfric discusses it 9 will get you 10 that it's in Amalarius of Metz but I'm too snowed under to run check right now...