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Ash Wednesday

ASH WEDNESDAY (Lat. Dies cineris, feria quarta cinerum): The first day of Lent, the beginning of the forty days’ fast before Easter in the Western Church. The name is not simply a general allusion to the repentance in sackcloth and ashes of which the prophets speak in the Old Testament, but refers more directly to a rite which marks the observance of the day in the Roman Catholic Church. The palm-branches blessed on the Palm-Sunday of the previous year are burned to ashes, and these ashes are placed in a vessel on the altar before the beginning of mass. The priest, wearing a violet cope (the color of mourning), prays that God will send his angel to hallow the ashes, that they may become a salutary remedy to all penitents. Then follows the prayer of benediction, which explains the symbolical meaning of the use of ashes still more clearly. The ashes are then thrice sprinkled with holy water and censed, after which the celebrant kneels and places some of them upon his own head. The congregation then approach the altar and kneel, while the sign of the cross is made upon their foreheads with the blessed ashes; to each one are said the words Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (” Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return” ).

It is impossible to determine accurately the date at which the imposition of ashes, which originally formed a part of the public penance for grievous sinners, became a custom applicable to all the faithful. It is demonstrably at least as old as the synod of Beneventum in 1091, which expressly commands it for clergy and laity alike. In the Anglican communion the day is marked by a special service known as the “commination service,” (q.v.) or at least by a special collect and Scripture lessons; and the Irvingite liturgy also contains prayers for it. See Church Year.

Bibliography: Bingham, Origines, book xviii, chap ii, § 2; G. Bevinet, History of the Reformation of the Church of England, ii. 94, London 1681; J. Kutschker, Gebräuche, pp. 91–152, Vienna, 1843.

« Ashtoreth Ash Wednesday Asia Minor in the Apostolic Time »
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