Yesterday, the world was busy in its pleasures, and the very children of God were taking a joyous farewell to mirth: but this morning, all is changed. The solemn announcement, spoken of by the prophet, has been proclaimed in Sion: the solemn fast of Lent, the season of expiation, the approach of the great anniversaries of our Redemption. Let us, then, rouse ourselves, and prepare for the spiritual combat.
But in this battling of the spirit against the flesh we need good armor. Our holy mother the Church knows how much we need it; and therefore does she summon us to enter into the house of God, that she may arm us for the holy contest. What this armor is we know from St. Paul, who thus describes it; 'Have your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice. And your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace. In all things, taking the shield and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The very prince of the apostles, too, addresses these solemn words to us: 'Christ having suffered in the flesh, be ye also armed with the same thought'. We are entering, today, upon a long campaign of the warfare spoken of by the apostles: forty days of battle, forty days of penance. We shall not turn cowards, if our souls can but be impressed with the conviction, that the battle and the penance must be gone through. Let us listen to the eloquence of the solemn rite which opens our Lent. Let us go whither our mother leads us, that is, to the scene of the fall.
The enemies we have to fight with, are of two kinds: internal, and external. The first are our passions; the second are the devils. Both were brought on us by pride, and man's pride began when he refused to obey his God. God forgave him his sin, but He punished him. The punishment was death, and this was the form of the divine sentence: 'Thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return'. Oh that we had remembered this! The recollection of what we are and what we are to be, would have checked that haughty rebellion, which has so often led us to break the law of God. And if, for the time to come, we would preserve in loyalty to Him, we must humble ourselves, accept the sentence, and look on this present life as a path to the grave. The path may be long or short; but to the tomb it must lead us. Remembering this, we shall see all things in their true light. We shall love that God, who has deigned to set His heart on us notwithstanding our being creatures of death: we shall hate, with deepest contrition, the insolence and ingratitude, wherewith we have spent so many of our few days of life, that is, in sinning against our heavenly Father: and we shall be not only willing, but eager, to go through these days of penance, which He so mercifully gives us for making reparation to His offended justice.
This was the motive the Church had in enriching her liturgy with the solemn rite, at which we are to assist this morning. When, upwards a thousand years ago, she decreed the anticipation of the lenten fast by the last four days of Quinquagesima week, she instituted this impressive ceremony of signing the forehead of her children with ashes, while saying to them those awful words, wherewith God sentenced us to death: 'Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return!' But the making use of ashes as a symbol of humiliation and penance, is of a much earlier date than the institution to which we allude. We find frequent mention of it in the Old Testament. Job, though a Gentile, sprinkled his flesh with ashes, that, thus humbled, he might propitiate the divine mercy and this was two thousand years before the coming of our Savior. The royal prophet tells us of himself, that he mingled ashes with his bread, because of the divine anger and indignation. Many such examples are to be met with in the sacred Scriptures; but so obvious is the analogy between the sinner who thus signifies his grief, and the object whereby he signifies it, that we read such instances without surprise. When fallen man would humble himself before the divine justice, which has sentenced his body to return to dust, how could he more aptly express his contrite acceptance of the sentence, than by sprinkling himself, or his food, with ashes, which is the dust of wood consumed by fire? This earnest acknowledgment of his being himself but dust and ashes, is an act of humility, and humility ever gives him confidence in that God, who resists the proud and pardons the humble.
It is probable that, when this ceremony of the Wednesday of Quinquagesima week was first instituted, it was not intended for all the faithful, but only for such as had committed any of those crimes for which the Church inflicted a public penance. Before the Mass of the day began, they presented themselves at the church, where the people were all assembled. The priests received the confession of their sins, and then clothed them in sackcloth, and sprinkled ashes on their heads. After this ceremony, the clergy and the faithful prostrated, and recited aloud the seven Penitential Psalms. A procession, in which the penitents walked barefooted, then followed; and on its return, the bishop addressed these words to the penitents: 'Behold, we drive you from the doors of the church by reason of your sins and crimes, as Adam, the first man, was driven out of paradise because of his transgression.' The clergy then sang several responsories, taken from the Book of Genesis, in which mention was made of the sentence pronounced by God when He condemned man to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, for that the earth was cursed on account of sin. The doors were then shut, and the penitents were not to pass the threshold until Maundy Thursday, when they were to come and receive absolution. Dating from the eleventh century, the discipline of public penance began to fall into disuse, and the holy rite of putting ashes on the heads of all the faithful indiscriminately became so general that, at length, it was considered as forming an essential part of the Roman liturgy. Formerly, it was the practice to approach bare-footed to receive this solemn memento of our nothingness; and in the twelfth century, even the Pope himself, when passing from the church of St. Anastasia to that of St. Sabina, at which the station was held, went the whole distance bare-footed, as also did the Cardinals who accompanied him. The Church no longer requires this exterior penance; but she is as anxious as ever that the holy ceremony, at which we are about to assist, should produce in us the sentiments she intended to convey by it, when she first instituted it.
As we have just mentioned, the station in Rome is at St. Sabina, on the Aventine Hill. It is under the patronage of this holy martyr that we open the penitential season of Lent.
-- Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Liturgical Year