The Beautiful Language Of The Traditional Blessing Of Ashes

by History of the Church, Lent, Mass

There’s an interesting phenomenon at work in this annual, very public ritual (and it’s not exclusive to Catholics; other Christians mark their foreheads with ashes to commemorate the start of Lent). While in some parts of the world it’s become less common to see people in the workplace, the grocery store, or anywhere in public with big black smudges on their foreheads, it is still one of the rare times when our faith becomes a truly public witness.

For me, one of the beautiful things about Catholicism is the cyclical repetition of the liturgical calendar. The ebb and flow of seasons, feasts and fasts, reappearances each year of an old saint (friend) gives us a chance to revisit familiar times in the life of Christ and the history of the Church – often with fresh eyes. As with so many of the rituals of our outward expressions of faith (and even the most rote of gestures!), there is so much depth, so much meaning under the surface. And we might miss some little detail even as we repeatedly participate for decades, only to land upon it in astonishment on the 99th go-round!

To know more about any authentic Catholic ritual is to enrich our own sacramental faith. Returning each year becomes not a monotony, but, rather, a deeper pull inside the beautiful tradition of the Church… a chance to discover something new that had been there all along, waiting for our eyes to see.

As I knelt in my pew at the start of Mass on Ash Wednesday, I found myself so moved by the prayers in my missal, itself a veritable treasure trove of beauty which, every time I open it, surprises me with some previously unnoticed gem. I wanted to share them with you, along with a little bit more about this beautiful, lesser-known aspect of a day we might just take for granted.

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

The priest begins with this plaintive cry on behalf of all of us. Yes, what sensitive soul hasn’t felt beset, even to the point of drowning, by the rushing floods of our own sin and the brokenness of the world around us? And, yet, our God is Love, and He keeps His promises. We call out to Him to save us, knowing that He WILL save us, and He WANTS to save us, even more than we want to be saved! The fitting way to approach Him is with complete trust, but also with humility.

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

Even amidst this valley of tears, temptations, and darkness, we are surrounded by good angels, most closely attended by our own guardian angel. Do we invoke their aid often enough? Do we thank them?

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini Our help is in the name of the Lord

R. Qui fecit caelum et terram. Who made heaven and earth.

Yes, the ashes we don are efficaciously blessed by consecrated hands of the priest, and sprinkled with holy water which has, itself, been confected by consecrated hands. That’s just cool, if you ask me. As with medals, holy water, wedding rings, etc., blessed sacramentals carry a bit of magic in them. No, not Harry Potter magic. I’m speaking of the Catholic mystery that pulses underneath everything we see, do and say in our Church. It’s there, even when we forget about it or fail to see it.

And, yes, even “just” His Holy Name carries great power when uttered by us human beings in faith. How amazing.

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the AshesLord, I am not worthy…” we say in the Confiteor. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…” we say in the Confessional. “I am what’s wrong with the world…”  G.K. Chesterton famously quipped. Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes…an outward sign of an inward grace…” (Baltimore Catechism) Jesus said to them, ‘They that are whole have no need of a physician; but they that are sick’ (Mk 2:17). Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes To me, this is such a beautiful and evocative image: “incline the ear of Thy goodness, O God…” Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo…

Spare, Lord, spare your people; lest you be angry with us forever.

Let us bow before the avenging wrath, let us weep before the Judge; let us cry out with words of supplication, let us speak, all falling prostrate.

By our wickedness we have offended your clemency, God; pour forth pardon on us from above, forgiver.

Giving us an acceptable time, grant, in the rivers of our tears, to wash our hearts’ sacrifice, enkindled by joyful charity.

Hear, benign Creator, our prayers with lamentations, poured forth during this holy fast of forty days.

Kind searcher of hearts, you know our bodily weaknesses; to those returning to you, show the grace of forgiveness.

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo…

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut… Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Mt. 25:10-13).

Isn’t it a relief to (1) acknowledge our weakness, (2) say it out loud, and (3) begin the work – and it is work! – of “amending and doing better,” but it’s a work carried out in blessed relief in the divine assurance of its goodness and efficacy… There’s a sweetness in it, amidst (or perhaps because of) the honesty behind it, that admits we are broken and that we need Him. Call me melancholic, but this is why I like the hymns, prayers and scripture verses tinged with the morbid or bleak. Of course, not all the time, but they are most appropriate for Lent, and that is when and why the Church sings them. There can be no feast without the fast. There can be no rejoicing if there is never a lamentation.

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus Tibi…

Crying, we raise our eyes to Thee, Sovereign King, Redeemer of all. Listen, Christ to the pleas of the supplicant sinners.

Thou art at the Right Hand of God the Father, the Keystone, the Way of salvation and Gate of Heaven, cleanse the stains of our sins.

O God, we beseech Thy majesty to hear our groans; to forgive our sins.

We confess to Thee our consented sins; we declare our hidden sins with contrite heart; in Thy mercy, O Redeemer, forgive them.

Thou wert captured, being innocent; brought about without resistance, condemned by impious men with false witnesses. O Christ keep safe those whom Thou hast redeemed.

Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus Tibi…

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

Yes, we are in a battle – for our own souls and for the souls of others, you might even say for the soul of the world. Lent is a time for preparation and for more intentional warfare against our own weaknesses, temptations, bad habits and sins. To put a name to them, and to our fight, is to face reality and to begin the salutary work that our Creator and Redeemer wants to help us with.

Ash Wednesday Blessing of the Ashes

Like training for sports, like studying for an exam, like any important passage or test we’ve ever  prepared for… only infinitely more important! But – take courage! – our help is {always} in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth (Ps. 124).

Wishing you a blessed, beautiful, and perseverant Lent.

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