Earlier on our blog, we shared some of basic facts about Ash Wednesday. Like many traditions in our church, the penitential practice of wearing ashes has evolved from ancient roots. Fr. Michael Busch, rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, provides a brief history lesson for us:
Despite all the 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 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 Mozarabic 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.
If you’ve missed a morning or noon Mass, there’s still time to receive your ashes. Mass will be celebrated at St. Michael’s Cathedral at 5:30 pm. Contact your local parish for more Mass times in your neighbourhood.
Kris Dmytrenko is a Communications Coordinator in the Archdiocese of Toronto's Office of Public Relations & Communications.