ASH WEDNESDAY – Station at St Sabina’s
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).
Introit of Mass
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).
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.
For the intercession of the Saints
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 Living and the Dead
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.
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)
Homily by Saint Augustine for Ash Wednesday
I. By these precepts, as it is evident, we are bidden to seek for interior gladness, lest, by running after that reward which is without, we should become conformed to the ways of this world, and should so lose the promise of that blessing which is all the truer and more solid as it is inward; that blessing wherein God chose us to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. In this chapter we will principally consider that vain-glory finds a ground for action in sordid poverty as much as in worldly distinction and display; and this development is the more dangerous, since it deceives under the pretence of serving God. He that is marked out by his unbridled indulgence in dress or luxury, or any other display, is by these very things recognised to be a follower of worldly vanities, and deceives no one by putting on a hypocritical mask of holiness. But those professing true Christianity, who draw all eyes on themselves by an eccentric show of filthiness and dirtiness, not suffered by necessity, but by their own will, we must judge of them by their other works, whether their conduct really proceeds from the desire of mortification, giving up unnecessary comfort, or is only the means of some ambitious design. The Lord tells us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, but, by their fruits you shall know them, He says (Matt 7:20). We test them, when by some trials such persons lose the very things which, under the cover of pretended unworldliness, they either gained or sought to gain. Then it will appear whether they be wolves in sheep s clothing, or, indeed, sheep in their own. But, that hypocrites do such contrary things, does not entitle the true Christian to think it his duty to shine before the eyes of men by the display of needless luxury; for the sheep need not lay aside their own clothing, because wolves sometimes falsely assume it.
II. Let us note that Jesus combines fasting with prayers and alms, spoken of in this Gospel, as one of the best means to resist the devil. Though our Lord attacks the vain-glory attending the false virtues of the Pharisees, and making them hypocrites in the eyes of God, He does not condemn the sadness of a sinful, humbled, and contrite heart. On the contrary, this sadness accompanying our fasting, is agreeable to God. But He condemns the voluntary forced sadness, that comes not from a heart penetrated with the love of God, but is only exterior. It is a pretended sadness that tries to obtain the esteem of the multitude, who praise the severe penance of such people, whom God, seeing their hearts, justly condemns. The words of the Gospel: When thou fastest, anoint thy Head and wash thy face, must not be taken in a literal sense, for we should certainly be found guilty if observing them. The real meaning of these words is this: As the ancients anointed their heads and washed their faces in days of joy, so we, in the days of fasting, ought to show holy joy. It is evident that, in all these commandments, our Redeemer had in view one object only, that is, to make us enter into our own heart, there to find the interior joy of the Holy Ghost. There may be as much vanity in the neglected exterior appearance of some people and their mournful looks, as in fine garments and exterior cheerfulness. And this kind of vanity is to be feared the more, since it is the more deceitful under the appearance of piety and godliness. He, fasting, anoints his head, when subject to Jesus, his Divine Head, he refers to Him all the merits of fasting, and feels an interior joy when, avoiding the pleasures of the world for His sake, he takes no notice of the praise of the people. He washes his face, who is carefully purifying his heart, knowing that the sight of the countenance of the Lord is promised to a pure heart.
III. You wish to fast well; then humble your soul, especially at the approaching of that day, when the Teacher of humility humbled Himself and was obedient unto death, even to the death on the cross. Let us imitate Him in His sufferings by subduing our desires with salutary abstinence. Let us chastise our body in order to keep it into subjection, and, that our perverse flesh may not tempt us to commit unlawful deeds, let us refuse to it, at least for a time, the lawful enjoyment of some things. Drunkenness and intemperance can never be allowed; but in these holy days meals which may be permitted at other times, should be restricted. Your body will feel more obedient and subservient, the more it is separated from things lawful, and is accustomed to abstain from rightful pleasures. And you will continue in holy cheerfulness to retrench the expenses of your table, the excesses of meals, and even avoid whatsoever flatters the palate.