Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Ash Wednesday

I am fascinated by the rituals and traditions that accompany religions, and since today is Ash Wednesday - a day that marks the first day of Lent - I thought of reflecting on this tradition, tracing its history and significance.
Ashes in the Bible
The origin of the custom of using ashes in religious ritual is lost in the mists of pre-history, but we find references to the practice in our own religious tradition in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer. 6:26).
The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Is 58:5).
The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel's repentance: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Dn 9:3).
Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God's command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, his preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried to the king of Nineveh. "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes" (Jon 3:6).
In the book of Judith, we find acts of repentance that specify that the ashes were put on people's heads: "And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord" (Jd 4:11; see also 4:15 and 9:1).
Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Mc3:47; see also 4:39).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).
Ashes in the History of the Church
Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabuc rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.
At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.
In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.
Here is a sermon by the Catholic John Mirk made in 1508  
¶Dn~ica prima in quadragesime.
GOod men and women this daye is called in ho|ly chyrche the fyrst sondaye in Quadragesime a nombre of .xl. for frome this day to Ester day be .xl. dayes. And for by cause that euery man syn|nes more or lesse for to make satysfaccion for tres+pas all crysten people ben bounden by the lawe of god and hooly chyrche to fast these .xl. dayes saue tho that the lawe dispenseth with resonable cause Chylderne that ben within aege / women that ben with chylde. Olde people that ben myghtles to the last labourynge people / as pylgrymes and syke people those that the lawe dyspenseth with vpon theyr consyence. Thanne for the cause yt sondaye is no daye of pe+naunce / therfore ye shall be gynne youre faste vpon  asshe-wednesday 
Here is a sermon by William Tyndale  (c. 1492 – 1536) - an English scholar who became a leading figure in Protestant reform in the years leading up to his execution. 

William Tyndale

On Asshe wensdaye the Epistle.
 ANd now therfore sayth the lorde. Tur|ne to me with all youre hartes / in fa|stinge and lamentacyo~. And teare you|re hartes and not youre garmentes / and turne vnto the lorde youre God. For he is full of mercie and compassion / longe yer he be an|grye / and great in mercie and repenteth when he is at the poynte to punyshe. Who can tell whether the lorde will turne and have com|passion and shall leave after him a blessynge? Sacrifice & drynk offerynge vnto ye lorde you+re God. Blowe a trompet in Sion / proclayme fastynge and call a congregacion. Gather the people together / brynge the elders to one pla+ce / gather the younge children and they that sucke the brestes / together. Let the brydgrome come oute of his chamber and the bryde oute of hir parloure. Let the prestes that mynister vnto the lorde / wepe betwene the porche and the alter / and saye: spare (lorde) thy people & delyver not thyne enheritaunce vnto rebuke that the hethen shuld raygne over the~. Why shuld they saye: amonge the nacio~s / where is their god. And the lorde envyed for his lo~des sake and had compassion on his people. And the lorde answered and sayde vnto his people Beholde / I sent you corne / new wyne and oy|le / that ye shalbe satisfied therwith· NSingle illegible letterther will I delyver you anye moare vnto ye hethen ...
Not all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. They are mostly observed by the Lutheran, Methodists, Presbytarian and Anglican denominations, and also by Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed. 


EEBO, accessed from The University of Sussex electronic library on 22/02/2012


    thought you would like to see this dont know if it gives any different information and you will have to google translate it whcih is sometimes unsatisfactory but you never know.

    1. Thanks for that great suggestion. I read it after translating it.