Smudged for life!

By Michael McKenna, Archdiocesan Master of Ceremonies

The American Catholic journalist and long-time spokeswoman for the United States Catholic Bishops Conference Sr Mary Ann Walsh RSM reflected that Ash Wednesday is “the day when a smudge on the forehead, for those who understand it, means I’ll try to do better. I’ll do what Lent asks: more prayer, more sacrifice, more almsgiving.”

The liturgical use of ashes originates in the Old Testament. Scripture abounds with references to the penitential use of ashes: (Esther 4:1), (Job 42:6), (Daniel 9:3), (Jonah 3:5-6) (Matthew 11:21). The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy reminds us that this austere symbol of our Ash Wednesday liturgy survives an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. Eusebius (260-340) recounts in his History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to the Pope clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Notably during this period in the Church’s history, a more public form of penance was the norm with the priest sprinkling ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.

Adopted in the Middle Ages to mark the start of the penitential disciplines of Lent, the liturgical use of ashes remains an exterior sign of an internal disposition toward conversion through fasting and penance to which all the baptised are called.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has issued an instruction on the approved adaptation to the Ash Wednesday liturgy given the social limitations of our persisting COVID reality. The smudge (or “Father’s revenge” as young altar servers have been known to call the more seriously “smudged”) is to be displaced for the “sprinkle”. For some the “smudge” has long been a penance in itself so how one wears their “sprinkle” with equal penitential effect may call for some innovation this Lent.

The sprinkling of ashes on the head is certainly not an innovation. While in most English-speaking countries the prevailing custom has favoured the “smudge”, in Spain, Italy and parts of Latin America, the prevailing custom has long been to sprinkle fairly dry ashes on the crown of the head.

Our world is enduring the torment of a pandemic which has visited so much death upon humanity. Smudge or no this Lent, let us not be diminished in our observances and our witness that conversion of heart through prayer, fasting and sacrifice will realise the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ our saviour!

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