Ashes

'When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'

- Matthew 6:16-21

For my Orthodox brothers and sisters who belong to the Western Rite, today is Ash Wednesday, and the first day of Lent. Many Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthdox alike, will be familiar with the ceremony of the imposition of ashes which has become customary on this day. This comes to us directly from the custom of the dismissal, in former times, of those who were excommunicate for one reason or another, and were serving a time of penitence before being received back into the full communion of the Church. Eventually, it became customary to impose the ashes on the heads of all who presented themselves.

Indirectly, this custom comes to us from Scripture, where numerous times in the Old Testament, we see reference to dust and ashes thrown upon the head as a sign of mourning, penitence, and a reminder of human mortality. (Job 2:12; Joshua 7:6; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30, among others).

Yet the Saviour warns us in quite clear terms not to disfigure our faces in order for our piety to be seen by men. This certainly seems to make the widespread practice of people walking around with a dark smudge or Cross on their faces something that is not compatible with the teachings of Christ. Less so seems to be the custom of mixing the ash with oil for the purpose of giving it a darker, more noticeable hue, and causing it to stay in place for longer. Can it be that centuries of Christian tradition have been in direct conflict with the words of the Saviour? Or is there something else going on?

All of those Old Testament references make mention of the dust and ash being specifically thrown upon the head. Could it be that this is the practice that was adopted by the Church but which later became corrupted?

I recently learnt that it is mainly in our anglophone world that the Cross on the face is as widespread as it is, and that in the Latin church, in many European countries, the custom is for the ashes to be sprinkled over the inclined head of the penitent in the form of a Cross, which is then barely, if at all, noticeable to anybody. It is the action and its significance to the penitent that is the focus, and not any lasting mark intended to be seen by the world. After all, a smudge of ash on the forehead is not the natural outworking of the practice of a lively faith but rather the evidence is in the lasting effect on our hearts and lives.

'Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honoured, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful... Let the ear fast... by not listening to evil talk and gossip... Let the mouth fast from the foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?'
-St John Chrysostom, "The Proof of Fasting"

Below we see the sprinkling form of the imposition of ashes employed in the cases of the current and last popes.













Could it be that this is in fact the earlier practice and that, somewhere along the line, it became customary in some places to place a smear on the face? The relevant rubric in the Sarum Missal simply says:

Afterwards the ashes shall be distributed on the heads of the clergy and laity by the higher dignitaries, making the sign of the Cross with the ashes...

The precise manner of how the ashes are to be distributed is not specified and it seems perfectly possible to me that this is the case because it was simply assumed that clergy would know how to do it. The rubrics in the local Roman use are equally vague. They certainly make no mention of forming a visible and lasting Cross in ash on the face. Here is a missal woodcut that depicts the same thing, (sadly I do not know its provenance):

On the one occasion that I observed the beginning of Orthodox Lent in the Western Rite, the ashes were imposed using the Cross-on-forehead method but that may not be representative of general Western Rite Orthodox practice. Is anybody able to offer any comment from experience of this elsewhere? Has anybody seen the sprinkling method employed? Most importantly, is it worth considering using this method in light of the words of the Saviour? Perhaps then we shall focus less on the foreheads of those around us and more readily internalise within our hearts the meaning of the Lenten fast, allowing our passions to be subdued, and the resultant imbuing of our hearts with the grace of God to spring forth in genuine love for ourselves and our neighbours, for the sake of our salvation.

Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
-Isaiah 58:5-9

11 responses:

Ian Climacus said...

A fascinating, as always!, and informative post; I was not aware of the sprinkling on an inclined head. Thank you.

BillyD said...

I've never heard of the sprinkling custom; thanks for bringing it up. However, the imposition of ashes isn't in as much conflict with the Savior's words in Matthew 6 as might appear at first, since strictly speaking they aren't signs of fasting. Even if you are not fasting, you go up to receive ashes. It's a sign of mortality and penitence, but not necessarily fasting.

That said, I went home and showered between going to Mass and going to class.

Michael said...

Thank you, Ian. Yes, it was new to me, as well, a few days ago. I actually found it a great comfort as I had always felt somewhat uneasy about it.

Thank you, as well, BillyD. I wonder, though, whether I may have inadvertently misled with my selective quoting. I quoted only those verses to do with fasting because of the Lenten season but the Saviour doesn't limit his comments to fasting. Those verses are part of a fuller passage in which He deals with acts of charity and with prayer, in addition to fasting. While penitence itself isn't specifically mentioned, there does seem to be a general warning against public displays of piety for the sake of being seen by others, and an exhortation to instead do them humbly and discreetly.

I felt a very uncomfortable twinge of guilt as I typed that because I know I condemn myself with those words.

BillyD said...

On the other hand, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Matthew 5:16

markrowland said...

I think the key point of the Matthew 6 passage is indeed "in order to be seen by others". If you are going to church and being ashed in order that other people will be in awe of your religion or piety then I think that this is indeed in conflict with the Saviour's words. BillyD rightly draws our attention also to Matthew 5:16 which gives the other side: public witnesses to the faith seeking the glory of God are also in keeping with the Saviour's teaching. It is also possible to approach ashing on Ash Wednesday in this spirit. It may be cliched but I think there is something to be said for the saying that if you feel you want to remove them then you should keep them and if you want to keep them then you should probably remove them.

It seems to me that any public display of adherence to the faith could be subject to the same charge. But equally the Saviour tells us that if we are ashamed of him and his words then he will be ashamed of us on the last day. We are called to public witness. We are called not to divert witness to God to witness to our own (supposed) greatness, piety or faithfulness.

Michael said...

Touché, BillyD. :-)

Mark, you beat me to it. Firefox decided to update itself and all my typing disapeared. :-(

Essentially, it was what you said, which I also think it what St John Chrysostom is saying in the passage of his quoted above - that the spiritual benefit we receive from fasting should lead us to acts of piety and care for others, and the Saviour tells us that others, seeing this, may be edified.

Yet that seems different from doing these deeds specifically in order to be seen by others. I see what you mean about the ashing, but as there is an alternative and long-standing tradition of sprinkling the ashes over the head rather than creating a visible mark with them, I suppose it does at least challene us to question ourselves about why we use one method or the other.

The receiving of the ashes in a spirit of penitence is a wholesome thing and to our spiritual benefit but there are a number of instances where we take part in these sorts of sacramental acts as part of church services - receiving blessed bread, taking part in the Eucharist, being sprinkled with or drinking holy water, being anointed with oil, among others - and I cannot think of any other in which, after the act is over and done with, we carry a prominent mark that identifies us as having done so.

So yes, I do think that we need to be wary of hiding our light under a bushel and that we should rather let it shine, but through the effect that our piety has in our lives and not simply by the fact that we have done an act of piety.

That line of thought sort of unfolded as I was typing so I haven't really thought through all of the implications of it. I suppose what it reveals is that I'm still personally unsettled by the prominent ash mark.

markrowland said...

It might be salutary to set these considerations against for example the habits of those who are clergy or monastics. If we appear on the street in the dress pertaining to our office in the church (which I certainly do on a fairly regular basis) we are - like or not - making a statement about something of our commitment to the faith and the way that plays out in our lives. It would be possible to take an attitude that was more about "seeking respect in the market-places and the places of honour at banquets" than humbly serving the gospel. But I don't think that's a reason not to wear such things because the flip-side of them is the public witness and accessibility that they enable. At the end of the day it comes down to are you doing this in order to be seen by others, ie for your own sake not that of God and his Church.

Pancho said...

"it is mainly in our anglophone world that the Cross on the forehead is as widespread as it is, and that in the Latin church,in many European countries, the custom is for the ashes to be sprinkled over the inclined head of the penitent in the form of a Cross"

I don't think that's necessarily the case. I'm aware that sprinkling is used in parts of Europe but the Cross on the forehead is widespread in areas beyond the anglophone world as you can see in these pictures from Mexico:
http://tinyurl.com/ybne35w
http://tinyurl.com/yzp32nt
http://tinyurl.com/yl3zryu

Have a blessed Lent :-)

Rubricarius said...

The imposition of ashes on the head is undoubtedly the older custom in the West. The imposition on the forehead has almost certainly developed because it easier and quicker for the person imposing the ashes.

Michael said...

Thank you, Pancho, for the clarification. And welcome! :-)

Yes, I did imagine that the forehead method would have been used elsewhere, but that it seems to be in the anglophone world that it is well-nigh universal, to the point where mention of the alternative is greeted with surprise.

And thank you, Rubricarius, for your thoughts on the antiquity of the sprinkling method.

Ian said...

Thanks, Michael for this challenging page.

When I worked in Chester Cathedral I once was the person who was to prepare the ashes, so I mixed them with holy oil. A new Canon was surprised that I had done this.

Here in Poland (in an RC church) the ashes are put on the top of the head. In Germany (again, in an RC church) they were put on the forehead, but dry, so they fell to the floor.

I guess that a desire to be open about ones Christianity was behind my supporting of mixing the ashes with oil (well, that and the fact that my old church had done so). Dry ashes certainly appear more sombre and more of a symbol of death.

Anyway, thanks again. From next Wednesday I'll be starting with Lent. Today in Poland is doughnut day!

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