Today’s station at Rome is at Saint-Sabina’s on the Aventine, in a sanctuary built on the former site of the holy martyr’s house. Having been converted by her maid-servant, she was beheaded for the faith and secretly buried. It is to this Church that, in former times, the Pope used to go barefoot “to begin with holy fasts the exercises of christian warfare, that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial”. In the fifth century it was one of the twenty-five parishes of Rome.
Following the example of the Ninivites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, the Church to-day, to humble our pride and remind us of the sentence of death, which as a consequence of our sins we are bound to undergo, sprinkles ashes on our heads with the words: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust shalt thou return”. We come from dust and to dust we shall return! Here indeed, is a thought that should humble our pride.
In this custom we have the remains of an ancient ceremony referred to in the Roman Pontifical. Those Christians who were guilty of grave faults had to undergo public penance. Accordingly on Ash Wednesday, the Bishop used to bless the sackcloth which was to be worn by the penitents during the holy Forty Days, and place upon their heads ashes made from palms used the previous year in the Palm Sunday procession. Then, while the faithful were singing the Seven Penitential Psalms, “the penitents were expelled from the holy place on account of their sins, just as Adam was driven out of paradise because of his disobedience”. They were not allowed to put off their penitential garb or to re-enter the Church before Holy Thursday after they had gained their reconciliation by toil and penance, and by sacramental confession and absolution.
At the Council of Beneventum (1091) Pope Urban VI commanded that the ashes should be received by all the faithful indiscriminately. Let us receive them in a spirit of humility and penance, that by this powerful sacramental we may obtain from almighty God the blessings which the Church implores in the act of blessing them. For, truly, “God overlooks the sins of men for the sake of repentance” (Introit). He is “rich in mercy” to those who are “converted to Him with all their heart in fasting and in weeping and in mourning ” (Epistle). We must not indeed, like the Pharisees, rend our garments as a sign of grief, but rather our hearts” (ibid.), for it is not men who are to testify to our fasting, but our Father who sees our innermost souls and will repay us (Gospel), as our Lord Himself tells us in the Sermon on the Mount. Let us then, draw from the Eucharist the help which we need (Postcommunion), so that celebrating to-day the institution of this sacred fast (Secret), we may “perform it with a devotion which nothing can disturb” (Collect).
Misereris omnium, Domine, et nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, dissimulans peccata hominum propter poenitentiam et parcens illis: quia tu es Dominus Deus noster. * Miserere mei, Deus, Miserere mei: quoniam in te confidit anima mea.
Thou hast mercy upon all, O Lord, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made, overlooking the sins of men for the sake of repentance, and sparing them: because Thou art the Lord our God. * Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me : for my soul trusteth in Thee.
(Wisdom 11:24,25,27 and Psalm 56:2 from the Introit of Mass).
Praesta, Domine, fidelibus tuis: ut jejuniorum veneranda solemnia, et congrua pietate, et secura devotione percurrant.
Grant, O Lord, to Thy faithful people that they may begin the venerable solemnities of fasting with becoming piety, and may persevere to the end with steadfast devotion.
A cunctis nos, quaesumus, Domine, mentis et corporis defende periculis: et intercedente beata et gloriosa semper Virgine Dei Genitrice Maria, cum beato Joseph, beatis Apostolis Tuis Petro et Paulo, atque beato N., et omnibus Sanctis, salutem nobis tribue benignus et pacem, ut destructis adversitatibus et erroribus universis, Ecclesia Tua secura Tibi serviat libertate.
Defend us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, from all dangers of mind and body; that through the intercession of the blessed and glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God, together with blessed Joseph, Thy blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and blessed N., and all the saints, mercifully grant us safety and peace; that all adversities and errors being overcome, Thy Church may serve Thee in security and freedom.
(For the intercession of the Saints)
Omnipotens sempiterna Deus, qui vivorum dominaris simul et mortuorum, omniumque misereris quos tuos fide et opera futuros esse praenoscis: te supplices exoramus; ut, pro quibus effundere preces decrevimus, quosque vel praesens saeculum adhuc in carne retinet, vel futurum jam exutos corpore suscepit, intercedentibus omnibus Sanctis tuis, pietatis tuae clementia omnium delictorum suorum veniam consequantur.
O almighty and eternal God, who hast dominion over both the living and the dead, and hast mercy on all whom Thou foreknowest shall be Thine by faith and good works: we humbly beseech Thee that all for whom we have resolved to make supplication whether the present world still holds them in the flesh or the world to come has already received them out of the body, may, through the intercession of all Thy saints, obtain of Thy goodness and clemency pardon for all their sins.
(For the Living and the Dead)
The continuation of the holy Gospel according to Matthew.
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: ‘When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’
(St Matthew 6:16-21)
(From SAINT ANDREW DAILY MISSAL)