Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Liturgical Notes on Ash Wednesday

It is a universal custom of all historical Christian rites not to fast on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, even in Lent and Holy Week. The original Roman Lent of six weeks therefore comprised forty-two days, but only thirty-six days of fasting, which St Gregory the Great describes as “the tithe of the year.” (Hom. XVI in Evang.) The Roman Missal preserves a reminder of this in the Secret for the Mass of the first Sunday of Lent, which speaks of the “sacrifice of the beginning of Lent.”

Not long afterwards, however, perhaps by Gregory himself, the four days preceding the first Sunday were added to the fast to bring the number of days to exactly forty, the length of the fast kept by the Lord Himself, as well as by the prophets Moses and Elijah. This extension of Lent back to Ash Wednesday, which was once commonly known as “in capite jejunii – at the beginning of the fast”, is a proper custom of the Roman Rite, attested in the earliest Roman liturgical books of the century after St Gregory. It was copied by the Mozarabic liturgy, but never by the Ambrosian, and indeed, the Milanese traditionally make a point of eating meat on this day. In the Eastern rites, Great Lent begins on the Monday of the First Week, two days before the Roman Ash Wednesday.

The Gospel of the Transfiguration, Matthew 17, 1-9, is read on the Ember Saturday of Lent in reference to the forty-day fast of Christ, which is mentioned on the previous Sunday (Matthew 4, 1-11) and of the two Prophets who appeared alongside Him at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah, both of whom appear in the readings of Ember Wednesday. (Icon by Theophanes the Greek, early 15th century, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.)
The Breviary of St Pius V and its medieval predecessors also preserve a memory of the fact that Ash Wednesday is a later addition. Although the fast begins on that day, the proper features of the Lenten Office (the hymns, chapters, versicles etc.) only begin to be sung at Vespers of Saturday before the First Sunday. This is also reflected in the traditional nomenclature of the three days after “Ash Wednesday (Feria IV Cinerum)”, which are called “post cineres – after the ashes,” rather than the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Lent. In the titles printed in liturgical books, and in the prayers of the Mass, the use of the Latin word for Lent, “Quadragesima,” only begins on the first Sunday. (An apparent exception is the Secret of the Friday “post cineres”, which contains the words “observantiae quadragesimalis”, but this is a revision of the Tridentine editors; the original reading was “observantiae paschalis.”)

The blessing and imposition of ashes was originally a rite for those who were assigned to do penance publicly during Lent for grave or notorious sins, an extremely ancient discipline and practice of the Church. The extension of this custom to all the faithful began in the later part of the 10th century, and was solidified by the end of the 11th, when Pope Urban II prescribed it at the Council of Benevento in 1091. The rite of “expelling” the public penitents from the church on Ash Wednesday, and receiving them back on Maundy Thursday, remained in the Pontifical for centuries after it had faded from use; another trace is the prayer “for the penitents” among the Preces said at Lauds and Vespers in penitential seasons. Many medieval uses also added a special commemoration of the public penitents to the suffrages of the Saints; in the Sarum Use, it was said as follows at Lauds:

Aña Convertímini ad me in toto corde vestro, in jejunio et fletu, et in planctu, dicit Dóminus.
V. Peccávimus cum pátribus nostris. R. Injuste égimus, iniquitátem fécimus.
Oratio Exaudi, quaesumus, Dómine, súpplicum preces, et confitentium tibi parce peccátis: ut páriter nobis indulgentiam tríbuas benignus, et pacem.

Aña Be ye turned to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning, sayeth the Lord.
V. We have sinned with our fathers. R. We have acted unjustly, we have wrought iniquity.
Prayer Graciously hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy supplicants, and pardon the sins of those who confess to Thee: that Thou may kindly grant us both pardon and peace.
The expulsion of the public penitents, in an illustration from a 1595 edition of the Roman Pontifical. (Reproduced by permission of the Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology at Emory University)
In the Missal of St Pius V, the blessing of the ashes is introduced by a chant which is called an antiphon in the rubrics, but is structured like an introit. The blessing itself consists of four prayers, the sprinkling of the ashes with holy water, and their incensation, after which they are imposed on all present, while two antiphons and a responsory are sung. The rite concludes with a brief prayer, and then the Mass begins.

In the Middle Ages, the Ash Wednesday ceremony generally included a procession as well. Historically, processions are regarded as penitential acts by nature; this is the reason why even those of Candlemas and the Rogations were traditionally done in penitential violet, although the Mass of the former and the season of the latter require white vestments. (See note below.)

In the year 1143, a canon of St Peter’s named Benedict wrote the following brief description of the Ash Wednesday ceremony in his treatise on the rituals of Rome and the Papal court, now known as the Ordo Romanus XI. “The ‘Collect’ (i.e. gathering is held) at St Anastasia, where the Pope comes with the whole curia; and there is he dressed, and all the other orders go up to the altar. There the Pope gives the ashes, and the primicerius sings with the schola the Antiphon Exaudi nos, Domine. When the (ritual at the Collect church) is finished, the Pope and all the others go bare-footed in a procession to Santa Sabina, followed by the primicerius with the schola, as they sing (the antiphon) Immutemur habitu. When they reach the church, the subdeacon lays aside the (processional) cross, and goes to the altar during the litany (of the Saints)… the Pope sings the Mass without the Kyrie, because of the Litany”, (i.e., it has already been sung at the end of the Litany.)

Later descriptions of this ceremony, such as the various recensions of the Ordinal of Innocent III (1198-1216), mention that the ashes were made at the church of St Anastasia by burning the palms left over from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, a common custom to this very day. During the Papal residence in Avignon, however, many long-standing traditions of the Papal court dropped out of use and were never revived; thus, the procession is not included in the pre-Tridentine Missal of the Roman Curia, the antecedent of the Missal of St Pius V.

A penitential procession led by St. Gregory the Great, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, by the Limbourg brothers, 1412-16.
Note: The ancient processions of the Roman Rite, all of which were once regarded as obligatory at major churches, were those of Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and the Rogation Days. Corpus Christi was added last, as the culmination of the liturgical year; the white vestments used at the procession indicate its purely celebratory character, wholly appropriate to the nature of the feast. However, it should be noted that the procession is not even mentioned in the Missal, nor is any particular music prescribed for it; of course, the Litany of the Saints, the penitential prayer par excellence, is not sung, and the procession is done after the Mass, rather than before it.

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