Lent, As Promised
Now that it is February Again,
I said I would tell you more about Lent last February
Then I guess I had better do so.
So, for all those who don't give a hoot
All those who do, here is some more information
Origin of the word
The Teutonic word Lent, which we employ to denote the forty days' fast preceding Easter, originally meant no more than the spring season. But, it has been used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term quadragesima. It means "forty days", or more literally the "fortieth day". Before that, a Greek term (pentekoste), last was in use for the Jewish festival (Pentecost) before New Testament times. This etymology, as we shall see, is of some little importance in explaining the early developments of the Easter fast.
Origin of the custom
Some of the monks and priests as early as the fifth century AD supported the view that this forty days' fast was of Apostolic institution. For example, Saint Leo (d. 461) exhorts his hearers to abstain that they may "fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the forty days". And, the historian Socrates (d. 433) and Saint Jerome (d. 420) use similar language. But, the best modern scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting this view, for in the existing remains of the first three centuries we find both considerable diversity of practice regarding the fast before Easter and also a gradual process of development in the matter of its duration.
The passage of primary importance is one quoted by Eusebius from a letter of Saint Irenaeus to Pope Victor in connection with the (discussed below) Easter Controversy. There Irenaeus says that there is not only a controversy about the time of keeping Easter but also regarding the preliminary fast. "For", he continues, "some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast". He also urges that this variety of usage is of ancient date, which implies that there could have been no apostolic tradition on the subject.
Rufinus, who translated Eusebius into Latin towards the close of the fourth century AD, seems so to have punctuated the passage to make Irenaeus say that some people fasted for forty days. Formerly some difference of opinion existed as to the proper reading, but modern criticism (e.g., in the edition of Schwartz commissioned by the Berlin Academy) pronounces strongly in favor of the text translated above. We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus about the year 190 knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days. The same inference must be drawn from the language of Tertullian, only a few years later. When writing as a Montanist, he contrasts the very slender term of fasting observed by the Christians (i.e., "the days on which the bridegroom was taken away"), probably meaning the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, with the longer but still restricted period of a fortnight which was kept by the Montanists. No doubt, he was referring to fasting of a very strict kind (xerophagiæ - dry fasts), but there is no indication in his works, though he wrote an entire treatise "De Jejunio". And, he often touches upon the subject elsewhere, that he was not acquainted with any period of forty days consecrated to more or less continuous fasting.
And, there is the same silence observable in all the pre-Nicene Fathers, though many had occasion to mention such an Apostolic institution if it had existed. We may note for example that there is no mention of Lent in Saint Dionysius of Alexandria or in the Didascalia, which Funk attributes to about the year 250; yet both speak diffusely of the paschal fast. Further, there seems much to suggest that the Church in the Apostolic Age designed to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by an annual, but by a weekly (Sunday) celebration. If this be so, the Sunday liturgy constituted the weekly memorial of the Resurrection, thus Sunday observance, and the Friday fast that of the Death of Jesus Christ.
Such a theory offers a natural explanation of the wide divergence which we find existing in the latter part of the second century regarding both the proper time for keeping Easter, and also the manner of the paschal fast. Christians were at one regarding the weekly observance of the Sunday and the Friday, which was primitive, but the annual Easter festival was something superimposed by a process of natural development, and it was largely influenced by the conditions locally existing in the different Churches of the East and West. Moreover, with the Easter festival there seems also to have established itself a preliminary fast, not as yet anywhere exceeding a week in duration, but very severe in character, which commemorated the Passion, or more generally, "the days on which the bridegroom was taken away".
Be that as it may, we find in the early years of the fourth century the first mention of the term tessarakoste. It occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), where there is only question of the proper time for celebrating a synod, and it is conceivable that it may refer not to a period but to a definite festival, e.g., the Feast of the Ascension, or the Purification, which Ætheria calls quadragesimæ de Epiphania. But, we have to remember that the older word, pentekoste (Pentecost) from meaning the fiftieth day, had come to denote the whole of the period (which we should call Paschal Time) between Easter Sunday and Whit-Sunday.
In any case it is certain from the "Festal Letters" of Saint Athanasius that in 331 he enjoined upon his flock a period of forty days of fasting preliminary to, but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week, and secondly that in 339 the same Father, after having traveled to Rome and over the greater part of Europe, wrote in the strongest terms to urge this observance upon the people of Alexandria as one that was universally practiced, "to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days". Although Funk formerly maintained that a Lent of forty days was not known in the West before the time of Saint Ambrose, this is evidence which cannot be set aside.
Duration of the Fast
In determining this period of forty days the example of Moses, Elias, and Jesus Christ must have exercised a predominant influence, but it is also possible that the fact was borne in mind that He, Jesus Christ, lay forty hours in the tomb. On the other hand just as Pentecost (the fifty days) was a period during which Christians were joyous and prayed standing, though they were not always engaged in such prayer, so the Quadragesima (the forty days) was originally a period marked by fasting, but not necessarily a period in which the faithful fasted every day. Still, this principle was differently understood in different localities, and great divergences of practice were the result.
In Rome, in the fifth century, Lent lasted six weeks, but according to the historian Socrates there were only three weeks of actual fasting, exclusive even then of the Saturday and Sunday and if Duchesne's view may be trusted, these weeks were not continuous, but were the first, the fourth, and sixth of the series, being connected with the ordinations. Possibly, however, these three weeks had to do with the "scrutinies" preparatory to Baptism, for by some authorities (e.g., A.J. Maclean in his "Recent Discoveries") the duty of fasting along with the candidate for baptism is put forward as the chief influence at work in the development of the forty days. But, throughout the Orient generally, with some few exceptions, the same arrangement prevailed as Saint Athanasius's "Festal Letters" show us to have obtained in Alexandria, namely, the six weeks of Lent were only preparatory to a fast of exceptional severity maintained during Holy Week. This is enjoined by the "Apostolic Constitutions", and presupposed by Saint Chrysostom. But, the number forty, having once established itself, produced other modifications. It seemed to many necessary that there should not only be fasting during the forty days but forty actual fasting days. Thus we find Ætheria in her "Peregrinatio" speaking of a Lent of eight weeks in all observed at Jerusalem, which, remembering that both the Saturday and Sunday of ordinary weeks were exempt, gives five times eight, i.e., forty days for fasting.
On the other hand, in many localities people were content to observe no more than a six weeks' period, sometimes, as at Milan, fasting only five days in the week after the oriental fashion. In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which Saint Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday, but the church of Milan, even to this day adheres to the more primitive arrangement, which still betrays itself in the Roman Missal when the priest in the Secret of the Mass on the first Sunday of Lent speaks of "sacrificium quadragesimalis initii" the sacrifice of the opening of Lent.
Nature of the fast
Neither was there originally less divergence regarding the nature of the fast, for example, the historian, Socrates, tells of the practice of the fifth century:
"Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the
living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, because, according
to the Mosaic account of the Creation, they too sprang from the water; others
abstain from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread
only, others not even that; others again when they have fasted to the ninth hour
(three o'clock) partake of various kinds of food".
Amid this diversity some inclined to the extreme limits of rigor.. Epiphanius, Palladius, and the author of the "Life of Saint Melania the Younger" seem to contemplate a state of things in which ordinary Christians were expected to pass twenty-four hours or more without food of any kind. Others, especially during Holy Week, the more austere actually subsisted during part or the whole of Lent upon one or two meals a week. But, the ordinary rule on fasting days was to take but one meal a day and that only in the evening During Holy Week, or at least on Good Friday it was common to enjoin the xerophagiæ, i.e., a diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables. There does not seem at the beginning to have been any prohibition of lacticinia, as the passage just quoted from Socrates would show.
Moreover, at a somewhat later date, Bede tells us of Bishop Cedda, that during Lent he took only one meal a day consisting of "a little bread, a hen's egg, and a little milk mixed with water", while Theodulphus of Orleans in the eighth century regarded abstinence from eggs, cheese, and fish as a mark of exceptional virtue. Nonetheless, Saint Gregory writing to Saint Augustine of England laid down the rule, "We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs". This decision was afterwards enshrined in the "Corpus Juris", and must be regarded as the common law of the Church.
Still exceptions were admitted, and dispensations to eat "lacticinia" were often granted upon condition of making a contribution to some pious work. These dispensations were known in Germany as Butterbriefe, and several churches are said to have been partly built by the proceeds of such exceptions. One of the steeples of Rouen Cathedral was for this reason formerly known as the 'Butter Tower'. This general prohibition of eggs and milk during Lent is perpetuated in the popular custom of blessing or making gifts of eggs at Easter, and in the English usage of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
Relaxations of the Lenten Fast
From what has been said it will be clear that in the early Middle Ages Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays. From the beginning to the end of that time all flesh meat, and also, for the most part, "lacticinia", were forbidden even on Sundays, while on all the fasting days only one meal was taken, which single meal was not permitted before evening. At a very early period, however (we find the first mention of it in Socrates), the practice began to be tolerated of breaking the fast at the hour of none (the ninth hour), i.e., three o'clock. We learn in particular that Charlemagne, about the year 800, took his lenten repast at 2 p.m. This gradual anticipation of the hour of dinner was facilitated by the fact that the canonical hours of none, vespers, etc., represented periods rather than fixed points of time. The ninth hour, none, was actually 3 0-clock in the afternoon, but the Office of None might be recited as soon as sext, which, of course, corresponded to the sixth hour, or midday. Hence none in course of time came to be regarded as beginning at midday, and this point of view is perpetuated in our word noon which means midday and not three o'clock in the afternoon. Now the hour for breaking the fast during Lent was after Vespers (the evening service), but by a gradual process the recitation of Vespers was more and more anticipated, until the principle was at last officially recognized, as it is at present, that Vespers in lent may be said at midday. In this way, although the author of the "Micrologus" in the eleventh century still declared that those who took food before evening did not observe the Lenten fast according to the canons.
Still, even at the close of the thirteenth century, certain theologians, for example the Franciscan Richard Middleton, who based his decision in part upon contemporary usage, pronounced that a man who took his dinner at midday did not break the Lenten fast. Still more material was the relaxation afforded by the introduction of "collation". This seems to have begun in the ninth century, when the Council of Aix la Chapelle sanctioned the concession, even in monastic houses, of a draught of water or other beverage in the evening to quench the thirst of those who were exhausted by the manual labor of the day. From this small beginning, a much larger indulgence gradually evolved. The principle of parvitas materiae, i.e., that a small quantity of nourishment which was not taken directly as a meal did not break the fast, was adopted by Saint Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, and in the course of centuries a recognized quantity of solid food, which according to received authorities must not exceed eight ounces, has come to be permitted after the midday repast.
As this evening drink, first tolerated in the ninth-century monasteries, was taken at the hour at which the "Collationes" (Conferences) of Abbot Cassian were being read aloud to the brethren, this slight indulgence came to be known as a "collation", and the name has continued since.
Other mitigations of an even more substantial character have been introduced into lenten observance in the course of the last few centuries. To begin with, the custom has been tolerated of taking a cup of liquid (e.g., tea or coffee, or even chocolate) with a fragment of bread or toast in the early morning. But, what more particularly regards Lent, successive indults have been granted by the Holy See allowing meat at the principal meal, first on Sundays, and then on two, three, four, and five weekdays, throughout nearly the whole of Lent. Quite recently, Maundy Thursday, upon which meat was hitherto always forbidden, has come to share in the same indulgence. In the United States the Holy See grants faculties whereby working men and their families may use flesh meat once a day throughout the year, except Fridays, Ash Wednesday Holy Saturday and the vigil of Christmas. The only compensation imposed for all these mitigations is the prohibition during Lent against partaking of both fish and flesh at the same repast.
Ecclesiastical history preserves the memory of three distinct phases of the dispute regarding the proper time of observing Easter. It will add to clearness if we in the first place state what is certain regarding the date and the nature of these three categories.
The first was mainly concerned with the lawfulness of celebrating Easter on a weekday. We read in Eusebius, "A question of no small importance arose at that time [i.e. the time of Pope Victor, about A.D. 190]. The dioceses of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch (epi tes tou soteriou Pascha heortes), contending that the fast ought to end on that day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. However, it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this point, as they observed the practice, which from Apostolic tradition has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the Resurrection of Our Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all with one consent through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other day but the Sunday and that we "should observe the close of the paschal fast on that day only." These words of the Father of Church History, followed by some extracts which he makes from the controversial letters of the time, tell us almost all that we know concerning the paschal controversy in its first stage.
A letter of Saint Irenaeus is among the extracts just referred to, and this shows that the diversity of practice regarding Easter had existed at least from the time of Pope Sixtus (c. 120). Further, Irenaeus states that Saint Polycarp, who like the other Asiatics, kept Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, whatever day of the week that might be, following therein the tradition which he claimed to have derived from John the Apostle. Polycarp came to Rome c. 150 about this very question, but could not be persuaded by Pope Anicetus to relinquish his Quartodeciman observance. Nevertheless he was not debarred from communion with the Roman Church, and Saint Irenaeus, while condemning the Quartodeciman practice, nevertheless reproaches Pope Victor (c. 189-99) with having excommunicated the Asiatics too precipitately and with not having followed the moderation of his predecessors.
The question thus debated was therefore primarily whether Easter was to be kept on a Sunday, or whether Christians should observe the Holy Day of the Jews, the fourteenth of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews were called Quartodecimans or terountes (observants); but even in the time of Pope Victor this usage hardly extended beyond the churches of Asia Minor. After the pope's strong measures the Quartodecimans seem to have gradually dwindled away. Origen in the "Philosophumena" seems to regard them as a mere handful of wrong-headed nonconformists.
The second stage in the Easter controversy centres round the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular phase of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself. The text of the decree of the Council of Nicaea which settled, or at least indicated a final settlement of, the difficulty has not been preserved to us, but we have an important document inserted in Eusebius's "Life of Constantine". The emperor himself, writing to the Churches after the Council of Nicaea, exhorts them to adopt its conclusions and says among other things:
"At this meeting the question concerning the most holy day of Easter was discussed, and it was resolved by the united judgment of all present that this feast ought to be kept by all and in every place on one and the same day. . . And, first of all it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, for we have received from our Savior a different way . . . And I myself have undertaken that this decision should meet with the approval of your Sagacities in the hope that your Wisdoms will gladly admit that practice which is observed at once in the city of Rome and in Africa, throughout Italy and in Egypt, with entire unity of judgment."
From this and other indications which cannot be specified here (see, e.g. Eusebius), we learn that the dispute now lay between the Christians of Syria and Mesopotamia and the rest of the world. The important Church of Antioch was still dependent upon the Jewish calendar for its Easter. The Syrian Christians always held their Easter festival on the Sunday after the Jews kept their Pasch.
On the other hand at Alexandria, and seemingly throughout the rest of the Roman Empire, the Christians calculated the time of Easter for themselves, paying no attention to the Jews. In this way the date of Easter as kept at Alexandria and Antioch did not always agree; for the Jews, upon whom Antioch depended, adopted very arbitrary methods of intercalating embolismic months before they celebrated Nisan, the first spring month, on the fourteenth day of which the paschal lamb was killed. In particular we learn that they had become neglectful (or at least the Christians of Rome and Alexandria declared they were neglectful) of the law that the fourteenth of Nisan must never precede the equinox.
Thus Constantine in the letter quoted above protests with horror that the Jews sometimes kept two Paschs in one year, meaning that two Paschs sometimes fell between one equinox and the next. The Alexandrians, on the other hand, accepted it as a first principle that the Sunday to be kept as Easter Day must necessarily occur after the vernal equinox, then identified with 21 March of the Julian year. This was the main difficulty which was decided by the Council of Nicaea. Even among the Christians who calculated Easter for themselves there had been considerable variations (partly due to a divergent reckoning of the date of the equinox), and as recently as 314, in the Council of Arles, it had been laid down that in future Easter should be kept 'uno die et uno tempore per ommnem orbem', and that to secure this uniformity the pope should send out letters to all the Churches.
The Council of Nicaea seems to have extended further the principle here laid down. As already stated, we have not its exact words, but we may safely infer from scattered notices that the council ruled:
· that Easter must be celebrated by all throughout the world on the same Sunday;
· that this Sunday must follow the fourteenth day of the paschal moon;
· that that moon was to be accounted the paschal moon whose fourteenth day followed the spring equinox;
· that some provision should be made, probably by the Church of Alexandria as best skilled in astronomical calculations, for determining the proper date of Easter and communicating it to the rest of the world.
This ruling of the Council of Nicaea did not remove all difficulties nor at once win universal acceptance among the Syrians. But, to judge from the strongly worded canon of the Council of Antioch (A.D. 341), as also from the language of the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons, the Syrian bishops loyally co-operated in carrying into effect the decision of the Council of Nicaea. In Rome and Alexandria the lunar cycles by which the occurrence of Easter was determined was not uniform. Rome, after the hundred-and-twelve year cycle of Hippolytus, adopted an eighty-four year cycle, but neither gave satisfactory results. Alexandria adhered to the more accurate nineteen-year cycle of Meton.
But it seems to be clearly established by the most recent researches that the lunar cycles were never understood to be more than aids towards ascertaining the correct date of Easter, also that where the calculations of Rome and Alexandria led to divergent results, compromises were made upon both sides and that the final decision always lay with accepted ecclesiastical authority.
It was to the divergent cycles which Rome had successively adopted and rejected in its attempt to determine Easter more accurately that the third stage in the paschal controversy was mainly due. The Roman missionaries coming to England in the time of Saint Gregory found the British Christians, the representatives of that Christianity which had been introduced into Britain during the period of the Roman occupation, still adhering to an ancient system of Easter-computation which Rome itself had laid aside. The British and Irish Christians were not Quartodecimans, as some unwarrantably accused them of being, for they kept the Easter festival upon a Sunday. They are supposed (e.g. by Krusch) to have observed an eight-four year cycle and not the five-hundred and thirty two year cycle of Victorius which was adopted in Gaul, but the most recent investigator of the question (Schwartz, p. 103) declares it to be impossible to determine what system they followed and himself inclines to the opinion that they derived their rule for the determining of Easter direct from Asia Minor. However, very opposite conclusions were drawn by Joseph Schmid, ("Die Osterfestberechnung auf den britischen Inseln", 1904.)
The story of this controversy, which together with the difference in the shape of tonsure, seems to have prevented all fraternization between the British Christians and the Roman missionaries, is told at length in the pages of Bede. The British appealed to the tradition of Saint John, the Romans to that of Saint Peter, both sides with little reason, and neither without the suspicion of forgery. It was not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 that the Christians of Northern Britain, who had derived their instruction in the Faith from the Scottish (i.e. Irish) missionaries, at last at the instance of Bishop Wilfrid and through the example of King Oswy accepted the Roman system and came into friendly relations with the bishops of the South. Even then in Ireland and in parts of the North some years passed before the adoption of the Roman Easter became general (Moran, Essays on the Origin, Doctrines and Discipline of the Early Irish Church, Dublin, 1864).
POINTS OF OBSCURITY
These are the facts regarding the Easter Controversy, which are now generally admitted. Many other subsidiary details have an important bearing on the case but are more matters of conjecture. There is, for example, the perplexing doubt whether the Crucifixion of Christ took place on the fourteenth or fifteenth of Nisan. The Synoptists seem to favour the latter, Saint John the former date. Clearly, we should expect to find that according to the answer given to this question, the position of the earliest possible Easter Sunday in the lunar month would also change. Again, there is the problem, much debated by modern scholars, whether the Pasch which the early Christians desired to commemorate was primarily the Passion or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Upon this point also our date does not admit of a very positive answer. It has been very strongly urged that the writers of the first two centuries who speak of the Pasch have always in view the pascha staurosimon, the Crucifixion Day, when Jesus Christ, Himself, was offered as the Victim, the antitype of the Jewish paschal lamb.
Supporters of this opinion often contend that the Resurrection was held to be sufficiently commemorated by the weekly Sunday, on the vigil of which the night-watch was kept, the Liturgy being celebrated in the morning. In any case it must be admitted that while in the New Testament we have definite mention of the observance of the Sunday, or "Lord's Day", there is no conclusive evidence in the first century or more of the keeping of the Pasch as a festival. Some are inclined to think that the Christian Easter first appears as setting a term to the great paschal fast which, as we learn from Irenaeus, was very variously kept in the sub-Apostolic Age.
Another class of obscure and rather intricate questions, about which it is difficult to speak positively, regards the limits of the paschal period as laid down by the computation of Rome before the tables of Dionysius Exiguus and the Metonic cycle were finally adopted there in 525. According to one system Easter Day might fall between the fourteenth and twentieth day inclusive of the paschal moon; and although this implies that when Easter fell on the fourteenth it coincided with the Jewish Pasch, the Roman Church, observing its eighty-four-year cycle, at one time permitted this (so at least Krusch contends in his "Der 84-jahrige Ostercyclus und seine Quellen", pp. 20 and 65.) Certain it is that the data of the supputatio Romana did not always agree with those of Alexandria, and in particular it seems that Rome, rejecting the 22nd March as the earliest possible date of Easter, only allowed the 23rd, while, on the other hand, the latest possible date according to the Roman system was the 21stt of April. This sometimes brought about an impasse which was relieved only by accepting the Alexandrian solution. Other computations allowed Easter to fall between the fifteenth and twenty-first day of the paschal moon and others between the sixteenth and the twenty second day.
What is perhaps most important to remember, both in the solution adopted in 525 and in that officially put forward at the time of the reform of the Calendar by Gregory XIII is this, that the Church throughout held that the determination of Easter was primarily a matter of ecclesiastical discipline and not of astronomical science. As Professor De Morgan long ago clearly recognized, the moon according to which Easter is calculated is neither the moon in the heavens nor even the mean moon, i.e. a moon traveling with the average motion of the real moon, but simply the moon of the calendar. This calendar moon is admittedly a fiction, though it departs very little from the actual astronomical facts; but in following the simple rule given for the dependence of Easter upon the moon of the calendar, uniformity is secured for all countries of the world.
According to this rule, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday which occurs after the first full moon (or more accurately after the first fourteenth day of the moon) following the 21st of March.
As a result, the earliest possible date of Easter is the 22nd of March, and the latest the 25th of April.
The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, is the first day of the Lenten fast.
The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words:
"Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.
There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance is of an earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091, but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. "We read", he says,
'in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.'
And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266). It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolized by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary.
Note: Much of the information here was compiled by Leo C. Helmer
from sources in the Catholic Encyclopedia and The World Book Encyclopedia.