Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. This year it falls on my birthday, March 9!  In the Western Church it is the Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday or the Sunday fifty days before Easter day. The ashes used in the rite comes from the burning of the palms from last Palm Sunday. Thus the continuity of the remembrance of Jesus' passion.

Now with the loss of Latinity in the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, the meaning of Quinquagesima will be met by an unexpressed but polite "duh" among most Catholics. However the last generation of Filipino Catholics to know what that means were your grandparents, who knew what the Latin Mass was all about. During Quinquagesima Sunday, the priest wore violet vestments as the liturgical colour was violet.

In the earliest Catholic tradition, this Sunday marks the beginning of the Lenten fast. In Medieval England, the pious English trooped to the churches to say their confessions to the priest. The English being not that rowdy compared to the Latins, called that Sunday "Shrove Sunday" and the following Tuesday, "Shrove Tuesday", Shrove is a old English word meaning "repent". Now on these days, it was customary to make pancakes and in the USA the day is called "pancake Tuesday". Among the Latins, it is known as "Fat Tuesday" and this is day of the Mardi Gras, which means the same thing! The consumption of animal products is prohibited in Lent and this included pancakes which have eggs!

All these are almost lost to a secular world except perhaps in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. In many cities Mardi Gras has taken a "gay" reputation as sort of coming out, when the original idea was to get inside one's conscience, examine it for sins and make a confession!

Fortunately the Anglican Church for the benefit of the whole Catholic Church (which has almost lost its sense of Latin!) has preserved much of the original meanings of these days. The Book of Common Prayer still emphasizes the fasting and penitence aspect. Thus the collect for the day is

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou has made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The 1928 BCP readings and Gospel are identical to that in the old Roman Missal for Ash Wednesday ( Joel 2:12 and St Matthew 7: 16). The collect's meaning is really taken from the Gospels and the Epistle for the day.

The ashes are imposed by the priest as the Sign of the Cross saying the traditional Genesis 3: 19 "Remember man, that thou art dust and into dust shall you return". The Roman Rite reforms give the priest an option taken from St Mark 1:15 "Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel" In the Philippines, a properly deputized extraordinary minister of Holy Communion ofter administers the ashes. But this is contrary to the old tradition even if the ashes are not a sacrament but a sacramental. The Anglican Church still uses the traditional Genesis verse which is a strong reminder of a man's mortality.

The question is how long must one wear the ashes. While the Gospel of the day suggests that one must wash it after leaving the church, Christ's directive must be taken in its proper context for he was really referring about the hypocritical wearing of signs of devotion.  While the Church does not have a rule about it, it is sensible to wear it until it fades away on that Wednesday. This is the only time the Christian is to wear the Sign of the Cross visible to all. People have died for the Sign of the Cross, in ancient Rome and even to this day! The wearing of "dirt" on the head is a minor inconvenience!

As it falls on my birthday, Ash Wednesday is an apt reminder that only God knows the length of my days and I must live these days in charity and service for others.

Also this Ash Wednesday is when our good friend Fr Joe Frary has a date with the surgeon. I will pray for him too.

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