The Way of BeautySound the Trumpet! Proclaim a Fast!

The starkness of Ash Wednesday ushers in the Church’s springtime for Latin-Rite Catholics. Two day ago on “Black” Monday, Great Lent began for Eastern-Rite Catholics. During this lenten spring (German and Anglo-Saxon: lencthen, lenct, spring), the central question, who do you say that I am, calls for a renewed personal and ecclesial response. The call to discipleship also invites every Catholic Christian to live as an ambassador of Christ, an awareness that shines the light of Christ outward to others and on to the whole of creation.

The annual rite of receiving ashes sets the tone for Lent. Ashes are a reminder of the transitory nature of this world. Nothing is permanent except Christ and building his kingdom. The ashes used for this day are obtained from olive branches blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.

The First Ash Wednesday

Today, the Church takes us back to that first day of ashes in salvation history when the Lord God passed sentence on our first parents and on fallen humanity:

Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you. And you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread. Until you return to the ground from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:17-19)

Today the Church repeats this last verse as she traces the ashen cross on the forehead or strews ashes over the head. Today’s rite however, differs dramatically from that of the fourth-century. In fact, today’s service is merely a relic of the original.

The Public Sinner in the Hebrew Scriptures

In the Hebrew Scriptures, a public sinner wore a sackcloth, a coarse, dark-colored material made from the hair of goats or the camel. Often too, the penitent had his head covered with ashes. Jacob dressed in sackcloth at the report of the death of his son Joseph (Gen 37:34). During a period of mourning, David too wore a sackcloth. The expression, “sackcloth and ashes” is found in Deut 9:3, Esther 4:1, Is 58:5; Mt 11:21.

The Public Sinner in Early Christianity

In the fourth century, Christian penitents who had committed grave, scandalous and public sins, such as idolatry, murder, cheating and adultery were expelled from the Church. Before they could be reconciled with God and the Body of Christ, they had to do public penance.

The Liturgy of Public Penance

The Liturgy of public penance had three components. First, penitents presented themselves to their bishop and confessed their sins to him. Their separation from the Body of Christ, excommunication, “was based on the viewpoint that the Church, taken in its fullest sense, is or should be a community of saints; whoever, by sin, has lost the life of grace no longer belongs to the Church in this full sense” (Josef A. Jungmann, S.J., The Early Liturgy, 242-43). However, penitents were not completely rejected because the Church ardently desired to bring about their forgiveness and reconciliation. In this solemn ritual, the individuals wore a penitential garb and had their heads strewn with ashes by the bishop. In the Orient, they were allowed to be present at the Liturgy of the Word, after which they were dismissed. In the West, penitents were permitted to be present at the Liturgy but stood at the back of the church during the liturgy. In either case, they could not receive Holy Communion. This painful deprivation was a stark reminder that they had severed themselves from the Church. The New Commentary of Canon Law (1998) addresses the issue of excommunication in our time (See for example, # 1319, 1131, 1364, 1367, 1372, 1378, 1398). Canon 915 of The New Commentary of Canon Law details the current prohibition of the Eucharist to public sinners.

Second, at every episcopal service, a penitent received from the bishop a special blessing. Finally and at the end of a period of time, the decisive act concluded the term of penance. In the liturgy of reconciliation, the excommunication, accompanied by prayer and imposition of hands, was withdrawn. The bishop gave each penitent absolution from his or her sin. This act of reconciliation was a sacramental act proper. The penitent was again received into the Church and again introduced as a member of the Body of Christ. The bishop declared that the penitent once more was to be a full member of the Church. This was a time of rejoicing for the entire community.

Trekking through Lent

In his short life, Jesus fasted, prayed to his Father, and went about doing good before the dramatic events leading up to his passion, death, and resurrection. It is in imitation of him that, for the next six weeks, the universal Church fasts, prays, and performs the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in preparation to relive sacramentally the mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection.

Those who take Lent seriously know how hard it is to look honestly at their lives before the crucifix with the threefold question: what have I done for Christ; what am I doing for Christ; what ought I to do for him. In trekking together through Lent, there is much consolation to be found. The Church as a community of faith presses forward through these forty days and nights as did the Jews of the Exodus. Their arduous journey through the desert for forty desolate and purifying years brought them out of slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. In a penitential posture, the Church humbly receives the graces of Lent so to be delivered from the slavery of sin and brought to freedom in Christ and the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter. “Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ,” writes Pope St. Clement, “and recognize how precious it is to God his Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world” (A Letter to the Corinthians). In his Festal Letters (XIX, 9), St. Athanasius (d 373) exhorts: “Anyone who neglects to observe the Forty Days Fast is not worthy to celebrate the Easter Festival.”

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