After three Sundays of preparation Lent is finally here (or is it upon us? One is never quite certain with the usus antiquior; but then I kind of like the uncertainty). This is the second year that I have actually been able to participate in the older rite on Ash Wednesday and, while I am normally a Solemn Mass man, the silence of the Low Mass celebrated was not without its effects. We were spectators in this seemingly arcane rite which was being performed on our behalf; and yet we were participants in it as well, offering ourselves up with the Lamb who was immolated from eternity, praying that what was happening on that most holy altar would take place within us as well. The hushed voices of the priest and server all the way up in the apse, which floated down as gently as snow to us all the way back practically in the narthex, brought to my mind a series of thoughts that have lately just been floating around in my head on the subject of Lent.
This post will be very fragmented, with no apparent link between any of the parts, and I write it mostly just to order the thoughts in my head, so I ask whoever reads this (and perseveres until the end) to please bear with me.
What is all this “nonsense” of getting one’s forehead “sullied” with ash at the beginning of Lent? Biblically, ashes are generally a sign of mourning, of repentence (cf. 2 Sam 13:19; Jer 6:26; Job 2:8;42:6; Ez 27:30). There are several prayers used in the blessing of the ashes according to the usus antiquior; let us see what the Liturgy has to say:
- […] that they may be a wholesome remedy for all who humbly implore Your holy Name […];
- […] that all who are sprinkled with these ashes for the forgiveness of their sins, may receive health for their bodies and salvation for their souls [reminiscent of the sprinkling of the red heffer’s ashes?];
- […] are to be placed upon our heads as a sign of humility and a pledge of Your forgiveness […];
- […] by the ashes sprinkled upon the heads of Your servants mercifully pour forth upon them the grace of Your blessing, fill them with the spirit of repentance and truly grant what they ask for in the right way […]
While Latins are generally accused of having a legalistic outlook (and these prayers do use a bit of legal jargon), one finds in them constant mentions of a merciful God, who only desires that His children return to Him. The prayers found in the Bragan missal remind us as well of the First Adam’s transgression (All powerful eternal God, who declared to the first man transgressing your commandment, nor confessing his sin, that he was dust and to dust he shall return), and reinforce the idea of a loving Creator (All powerful God who hath mercy on all, and who hates nothing of those things which thou hast made). Adam’s lack of repentence merits the warning that he will return to the dust from which he was made; now, we put on dust [ashes] in sign of repentance so that we will not return to it.
So these ashes are sacramentals. They’re not merely an outward sign of our (supposed) interior state; they are conduits of grace to help us repent, and a “reminder” to God of His mercy.
We processed silently up the aisle to receive the ashes, and as we knelt it would not have been strange to me at all to hear the line from the Dies Irae:
Oro supplex et acclinis; cor contritum quasi cinis.
Low I kneel, with heart’s submission; see, like ashes, my contrition.
For a long time the readings on this day baffled me. “Rend your hearts, not your garments […]; […] when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men […]”. “Isn’t it hypocritical to be walking around all day with ash on my forehead when the readings are against this kind of ostentatious behaviour?” I would ask others and they would have the same question; I never received a decent answer from any of the clergy or people in a position to teach. It took a long time to learn that these readings on this day were not paradoxal, nor that we were doing something apparently hypocritical. I had to learn how to read the Scriptures properly. I had to learn what these passages meant in their proper context as well as in the context of the Bible, as well as certain jewish rhetorical styles. The contradiction I perceived between the readings and our actions was only superficial; I had taken things at face value and not really bothered to go beyond the surface. These condemnations were not of what the Law prescribed, but rather of the spirit with which they were done. The exterior signs are necessary, but one should not use them as a source of pride; all must be for God. So much time to learn something so simple…
Later that evening at home we thought it apropriate to pray the Canon of Repentence to Our Lord Jesus Christ (a Byzantine prayer). It was the first time we ever prayed it, and the words struck deep, especially
O woe is me, a sinner! Wretched am I above all men. There is no repentance in me. Give me, O Lord, tears, that I may weep bitterly over my deeds.
We ended the day with a kind of Chapter of Faults/Rite of Forgiveness, in which we both asked for each other’s forgiveness and prayers.
And so began our Lenten journey. The silence of the Mass, as I said, made quite the impression on me, so much so that I’ve wondered if Silence is not to be the staple characteristic of this Lent.