Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday... the start of Lent


Since Lent begins today, I thought I'd give a little information about this season. The following stuff is by Fr. Mick, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He sums things up really well...

Ash Wednesday - Our Shifting Understanding of Lent

Those who work with liturgy in parishes know that some of the largest crowds in the year will
show up to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Though this is not a holy day of obligation in our tradition, many people would not think of
letting Ash Wednesday go by without a trip to church to be marked with an ashen cross on their foreheads. Even people who seldom come to Church for the rest of the year may make a concerted effort to come for ashes.

How did this practice become such an important part of the lives of so many believers? Who came up with the idea for this rather odd ritual? How do we explain the popularity of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces? Those who do not share our customs often make a point of telling us that we have something on our foreheads, assuming we would want to wash it off, but many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day.

Ashes in the Bible

The origin of the custom of using ashes in religious ritual is lost in the mists of pre-history, but we find references to the practice in our own religious tradition in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26).

The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Is 58:5).

The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel's repentance: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Dn 9:3).

Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God's command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, his preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried
to the king of Nineveh. "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes" (Jon 3:6).

In the book of Judith, we find acts of repentance that specify that the ashes were put on people's heads: "And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord" (Jdt 4:11; see also 4:15 and 9:1).

Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish Independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That
day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Mc 3:47; see also 4:39).

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).

Ashes in the History of the Church

Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of shes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents.
As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a
ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes.

Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.

At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.

In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.

The Order of Penitents

It seems, then, that our use of ashes at the beginning of Lent is an extension of the use of ashes with those entering the Order of Penitents. This discipline was the way the Sacrament of Penance was celebrated through most of the first millennium of Church history. Those who had committed serious sins confessed their sins to the bishop or his representative and were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. After completing their penance, they were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the community.

During the time they worked out their penances, the penitents often had special places in church and wore special garments to indicate their status. Like the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism, they were often dismissed from the Sunday assembly after the Liturgy of the Word.

This whole process was modeled on the conversion journey of the catechumens, because the Church saw falling into serious sin after Baptism as an indication that a person had not really been converted. Penance was a second attempt to foster that conversion. Early Church fathers even called Penance a "second Baptism."

Lent developed in the Church as the whole community prayed and fasted for the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism. At the same time, those members of the community who were already baptized prepared to renew their baptismal promises at Easter, thus joining the catechumens in seeking to deepen their own conversion. It was natural, then, that the Order of Penitents also focused on Lent, with reconciliation often being celebrated on Holy Thursday so that the newly reconciled could share in the liturgies of the Triduum. With Lent clearly a season focused on Baptism, Penance found a home there as well.

Shifting Understanding of Lent

With the disappearance of the catechumenate from the Church's life, people's understanding of the season of Lent changed. By the Middle Ages, the emphasis was no longer clearly baptismal. Instead, the main
emphasis shifted to the passion and death of Christ. Medieval art eflected this increased focus on the suffering Savior. Lent came to be
seen as a time to acknowledge our guilt for the sins that led to Christ's
passion and death. Repentance was then seen as a way to avoid punishment for sin more than as a way to renew our baptismal commitment.

With the gradual disappearance of the Order of Penitents, the use of ashes became detached from its original context. The focus on personal penance and the Sacrament of Penance continued in Lent, but the connection to Baptism was no longer obvious to most people. This is reflected in the formula that came to be associated with the distribution of ashes: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return." This text focuses on our mortality, as an incentive to take seriously the call to repentance, but there is little hint here of any baptismal meaning. This emphasis on mortality fit well with the medieval experience of life, when the threat of death was always at hand. Many people died very young, and the societal devastation of the plague made death even more prevalent.

Ash Wednesday After Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for the renewal of Lent, recovering its ancient baptismal character. This recovery was significantly advanced by the restoration of the catechumenate mandated by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972). As Catholics have increasingly interacted with catechumens in the final stage of their preparation for Baptism, they have begun to understand Lent as a season of baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal.

Since Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, it naturally is also beginning to recover a baptismal focus. One hint of this is the second formula that is offered for the imposition of ashes: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." Though it doesn't explicitly mention Baptism, it recalls our baptismal promises to reject sin and profess our faith. It is a clear call to conversion, to that movement away from sin and toward Christ that we have to embrace over and over again through our lives.

As the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday calls us to the conversion journey that marks the season. As the catechumens enter the final stage of their preparation for the Easter sacraments, we are all called to walk with them so that we will be prepared to renew our baptismal promises when Easter arrives.

The Readings for Ash Wednesday

The readings assigned to Ash Wednesday highlight this call to conversion. The first reading from the prophet Joel is a clarion call to
return to the Lord "with fasting, and weeping and mourning." Joel reminds us that our God is "gracious and merciful...slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment," thus inviting us to trust in God's love as we seek to renew our life with God. It is important to note that Joel does not call only for individual conversion. His appeal is to the whole people, so he commands: "Blow the trumpet in Zion,
proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast." As we enter this season of renewal, we are united with all of God's people, for we all share the need for continued conversion and we are called to support one another on the journey. Imitating those who joined the Order of Penitents in ages past, we all become a
community of penitents seeking to grow closer to God through repentance and renewal.

With a different tone but no less urgency, St. Paul implores us in the second reading to "be reconciled to God." "Now," he insists, "is a very
acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." The time to return to the Lord is now, this holy season, this very day.

The Gospel for Ash Wednesday gives us good advice on how we are to act during Lent. Jesus speaks of the three main disciplines of the season: giving alms, praying and fasting. All of these spiritual activities, Jesus teaches us, are to be done without any desire for recognition by others. The point is not that we should only pray alone and not in community, for example, but that we should not pray in order to be seen as holy. The same is true of fasting and works of charity; they do not need to be hidden but they are to be done out of love of God and neighbor, not in order to be seen by others.

There is a certain irony that we use this Gospel, which tells us to wash our faces so that we do not appear to be doing penance on the day that we go around with "dirt" on our foreheads. This is just another way Jesus is telling us not to perform religious acts for public recognition. We don't wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge
that we are a community of sinners in need of repentance and renewal.

From Ashes to the Font

The call to continuing conversion reflected in these readings is also the message of the ashes. We move through Lent from ashes to the baptismal font. We dirty our faces on Ash Wednesday and are cleansed in the waters of the font. More profoundly, we embrace the need to die to sin and selfishness at the beginning of Lent so that we can come to fuller life in the Risen One at Easter.

When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth ("Remember that you are dust"). We remember that we are mortal beings ("and to dust you will return"). We remember that we are baptized. We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion ("Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel"). We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).

Renewing our sense of who we really are before God is the core of the Lenten experience. It is so easy to forget, and thus we fall into habits of sin, ways of thinking and living that are contrary to God's will. In this we are like the Ninevites in the story of Jonah. It was "their wickedness" that caused God to send Jonah to preach to them. Jonah resisted that mission and found himself in deep water. Rescued by a large fish, Jonah finally did God's bidding and began to preach in Nineveh. His preaching obviously fell on open ears and hearts, for in one day he prompted the conversion of the whole city.

From the very beginning of Lent, God's word calls us to conversion. If we open our ears and hearts to that word, we will be like the Ninevites not only in their sinfulness but also in their conversion to the Lord.

That, simply put, is the point of Ash Wednesday!

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the all-holy one, who gives us life and all things. As we go about our lives, the press of our duties and activities often leads us to forget your presence and your love. We fall
into sin and fail to live out the responsibilities that you have entrusted to those who were baptized into your Son.

In this holy season, help us to turn our minds and hearts back to you. Lead us into sincere repentance and renew our lives with your grace. Help us to remember that we are sinners, but even more, help us to remember your loving mercy.

As we live through this Ash Wednesday, may the crosses of ashes that mark our foreheads be a reminder to us and to those we meet that we belong to your Son. May our worship and prayer and penitence this day be sustained throughout these 40 days of Lent. Bring us refreshed and renewed to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

Lawrence E. Mick is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds a master's degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. He is author of over 500 articles in various publications. His latest books are Forming the Assembly to Celebrate Eucharist and Forming the
Assembly to Celebrate Sacraments (Liturgy Training Publications).

The above is for informational and discussion purposes only.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Free time


So what are you doing with your free time, other than prayer? I'm enjoying one of my favorite things: OPERA!

I'm a huge fan of Joan Sutherland.

The first and third clips below are from her later years, when age had matured her voice into a rich ink grade port. Dame Sutherland has been singing since the 1940's.

This YouTube journey began because I was trying to find a clip of Les Oiseaux Dans la Charmille for my friend Michael. I never dreamed that fans would have found old recordings of Dame Sutherland's voice and published them to the web. Heaven!

The first clip is her version of this very complex song. The vibrato is a fanciful technique that many modern opera singers can't pull off with style. Dame Sutherland is a true coloratura soprano, a mistress of opera who's as at home with Les Oiseaux as she is with the role of Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflote. She has a high range and can pull off elaborate ornamentation and embellishment, including running passages and trills.

Joan Sutherland - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Do you think God tells us to judge others?


I thought I'd tackle Romans 2:1-16, since it seems like a lot of people are really into this trend of judging others.

Paul starts right off the bat in the first verse in this letter to the Romans...

Romans 2:1 "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things."

It's pretty cut and dry. It goes back to what Jesus said in Matthew 7:3-5 "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

We can't judge others if we are stained with sin. We can judge actions, and when we do, we are telling ourselves "this is not something I should do!" We can't pass judgement on other people, tho. That is God's job. We fall into sin when we put ourselves in God's place. Paul explains this in the next few verses.

Romans 2:2-4 Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?

Paul is saying 'Look, God is gonna judge these people! But, you can't do his job!' What about verse 4? God is kind, tolerance and patient, and we are to follow that example. It is God's mercy that leads us to salvation. When we judge others, we are not showing them mercy. They will not repent because of bashing or harsh words. If we want to lead people to Christ, we need to give them the same mercy he does. When we judge harshly, and spew forth 'the bible tells me to judge you and your sin!', we are insulting God and his gift of mercy towards us!

What happens to Christians who judge and bash? Paul explains that, too

Romans 2:5-8 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.

Paul is clearly saying 'you are pissing God off when you judge others and insult his gift of mercy!' Yes, God will punish those who are self-seeking, and who reject the truth and follow evil. Do you think Paul is talking about the 'judged sinners' in those verses? Nope. Paul is talking about those who judge others... they are self-seeking, meaning that they are glorifying themselves and not God... and they are rejecting the truth... which is that God is all about mercy. It is an evil heart that makes someone think they are above God. Paul says there will be wrath and anger. This could apply to God's wrath and anger... but think about one thing: when you damn another person, things get ugly. There is wrath and anger between you and the person you accuse. Where is God's gift of mercy??? It's been lost.

Paul adds in the next verses...

Romans 2:9-11 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

Pretty cut and dry. And nope, God doesn't show favoritism... Jew and Gentile alike are held the same. Paul continues....

Romans 2:12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.

That's also pretty basic. It applies to sinner and saints alike... saved and unsaved... Jew and Gentile... male and female... Christian or not Christian.

Paul explains it even more sternly...

Romans 2:13-16 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

Paul is verbally spanking the early church! Knowing clobber and bash verses from the bible is not going to get your sorry butt into heaven. If you don't walk your talk, you are pretty dead in the law... a Pharisee who sits around saying 'look how holy I am because I know the law!!!' If Gentiles could gain God's grace by their actions, then who were the early Christian Jews to judge them for not being born Jewish? Actions speak louder than words, as far as God is concerned.

Now, the letter to the Romans was Paul's way of barking at the early church there to stop bashing the poor Gentiles and Jews who did not believe. He was saying 'Hey, why would anyone want to follow Jesus when his followers are making asses of themselves by judging everything based on what they think is God's truth???' But, his lesson to the church in Rome can be applied to all Christians. We can't judge someone as sinners just because our personal belief is that wine is of the devil. We can't damn them because our personal belief is that being gay is a sin. We can't harass them just because our personal belief is that children born out of wedlock are manifestations of antichrists. Our personal beliefs don't matter when it comes to what God says. All we're doing when we judge others is attacking them for not fitting our personal doctrine. That's why it's important to leave the judgement up to God.