Biblical symbol of penance viewed as renewal of baptismal promise
By Joseph T. Cannavo
This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 6, which officially begins Lent, the 40-day period when Catholics and other Christians line up at local churches to receive a symbol of their faith displayed upon their foreheads. According to historical records, this has been happening since the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604 AD).
In modern times, the wearing of ashes on the head is considered a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin. However, it should be pointed out before we go on any further that if you are in Italy on Ash Wednesday, you may wonder why in a country that is predominantly Roman Catholic one doesn’t see ashes on people’s foreheads.
In Italy the blessed ashes are administered by sprinkling them on the crown of the head, rather than by marking the forehead with a cross, as is generally done in the United States. Sprinkling ashes on the crown of the head recalls the biblical method of putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penance: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth upon their heads.” (Nehemiah 9:1)
On the other hand, the American method of putting ashes on the forehead, usually in the sign of the cross, allows the ashes to be visible to others so that the communal, penitential nature of the day might be more readily visible.
Returning to our main theme, the use of ashes is a symbol of penance in the Bible, referred to in 2 Samuel 13:19, which reads, “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing.” It is also mentioned in the New Testament, though not directly. St. Paul, in one of his letters to the Romans, refers to placing the mark of the cross on the forehead as “delivering a Christian from slavery to sin and the devil, and making them a slave of righteousness and Christ.”
St. Paul was speaking of baptism, but the cross pattern of ashes used on Ash Wednesday is viewed as a renewal of the baptismal promise of forgiveness for man’s original sin. In Italy, and throughout the world, Lent is a season where Catholics reflect on the sacrifice Christ made for their sins, making that baptismal forgiveness possible. Today the use of blessed ashes at a solemn service is one of those moments of the year in which Catholics and Anglicans most resemble one another, and this is also the case in Italy, especially in Rome.In Rome, all churches are open on Ash Wednesday to receive the faithful and provide them an opportunity to renew their baptismal vows. The Pope presides at an Ash Wednesday service at a different Roman church every year, usually held at 4:30 p.m. and preceded by a penitential procession. This year the Ash Wednesday Papal Mass will be held at the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, beginning at 4:30 p.m. As with any Papal Mass, tickets have to be booked in advance and should be reserved via the Vatican website of the Prefecture of the Papal Household. They are always free but may run out quickly for popular services.
An Anglican deposition of the Ashes in Rome is usually held at lunchtime in English on Ash Wednesday at the Church of All Saints at 153 via del Babuino, near piazza del Popolo and via del Corso. This year, the service starts at 12:45 p.m. at All Saints. All are welcome.
Anglicans and Episcopalians unite with Catholic worshippers at the Oratorio di San Francesco Saverio del Caravita, for an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this year at 7 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. This is also an English-language service. Caravita, as it is more commonly known, is a Catholic liturgical community which welcomes worshippers of other faiths to all its services, held regularly in English.
During the solemn service, after the prayers, worshippers file to the front of the church where ministers mark the sign of the cross on their heads in ashes, with the words “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” or “turn from sin and be faithful to Christ” in a ritual known as ashing, intending to prepare believers for the Lenten season, seven weeks of prayer and fasting. Lent is known as a 40-day cycle, a richly symbolic number in the Bible, although it is technically 46 days — the secret is that the Sundays don’t count. Christians who observe abstinence during Lent are encouraged to break their fast on Sundays throughout the period, with each Sunday dubbed “a little Resurrection Day” — a precursor of the Easter celebration to come.