Ashes and How to Impose Them

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Ashes and How to Impose Them

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 17 February 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.


Q1: During Ash Wednesday Masses, ashes are placed on the head of all those present who come forward for it. At one such Mass, I noticed that what was placed on everybody was a liquid mixture of ashes and water. Is this permitted? Further, in addition to the priest and nuns, a lay faithful from the congregation came forward and assisted with administering the ashes/liquid. Is this also proper? — D.O., Mombasa, Kenya

Q2: Is there a correct way of imposing the ashes? I note that in Rome the ashes are sprinkled on top of people's heads, but in other parts of the world the ash is marked on the foreheads. — M.F., Oxford, England

A: These and similar questions are often asked at this time of year leading up to Lent. I think it is worthwhile repeating some things, even though we have addressed the issue on other occasions.

Historically, the use of ashes as a sign of penance is already found in the Old Testament, and even Jesus speaks of the necessity of some sinners to do penance in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Tertullian, saints Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, and many other Church Fathers make frequent reference to this practice, especially in relationship with the practice of beginning a period of public penance for grave sins.

Apart from the relatively few public penitents, many other devout Christians confessed at the beginning of Lent so as to be able to receive daily Communion during this season, and they asked to be covered with ashes as a sign of humility after having received absolution. In the year 1091 Pope Urban II recommended this practice to both clergy and laity. Subsequently the rite of blessing and imposing the ashes became generalized and swiftly assumed considerable importance in the liturgical life of the faithful. At first, the rite was separate from Mass but eventually entered into the Mass itself around the 12th century.

Initially, men received ashes sprinkled upon the crown of the head, while the ashes were imposed upon women by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. This difference probably stems from the simple fact that women were obliged to keep their heads covered in church.

With respect to the spirituality of receiving ashes, the Church offers some useful pointers. No. 125 of the Directory for Popular Piety says:

"The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment."

The Congregation for Divine Worship published a circular letter regarding the Easter celebrations in 1988. Regarding Ash Wednesday it says:

"21. On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church's customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter.

"The blessing and imposition of ashes should take place either in the Mass or outside of the Mass. In the latter case, it is to be part of a liturgy of the word and conclude with the prayer of the faithful."

With this in mind we can answer that regarding the mode of distributing ashes there are several legitimate customs.

In most English-speaking countries the prevailing custom seems to be that the priest places enough holy water into the ashes to form a kind of paste. The ashes are then daubed in the form of a cross on the forehead. Relatively little water is required, and the mix should not be excessively liquid.

Many Catholics see this practice as a means of publicly showing their faith and leave the unwashed smudge on their forehead throughout Ash Wednesday.

In much of Italy and in some other Romance-language countries, water is not added to the ashes. Rather, dry ashes are imposed by making a sign of the cross above the crown of the head as the ashes fall upon the hair. This mode has the advantage of capturing better the idea of ashes as dust but does not leave a visible sign that can last during the day, except upon those who happen to be bald. There may be other legitimate traditions as well.

A recent innovation in some places has been making a stamp so that ashes are literally stamped on the forehead of the faithful. I would be of the opinion that the mechanical nature of this process effectively detracts from the sense of ashes being imposed upon our heads.

The rubrics for the distribution of ashes state that the priest, on concluding, washes his hands, logically implying that he has physically handled the ashes and not just used a stamp.

The use of the stamp would appear to be motivated by a desire to favor the duration of the sign during the day, even though this is merely an incidental, albeit positive, aspect of one particular mode of imposition. The danger is that this process could detract from what is essential to the ritual gesture, the act of receiving the imposition of ashes as a sign of personal penance and conversion.

With respect to the one who may impose ashes, the Shorter Book of Blessings has a rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes outside of Mass. No. 1062 of this book has the following indication:

"This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon."

A lay minister may also lead a slightly varied version of the rite of distribution using ashes previously blessed by a priest or deacon, for example, when bringing ashes to the sick.

The Roman Missal makes no explicit mention of the use of lay ministers to assist in the distribution of ashes blessed during Mass. I believe, however, that the indication in the Book of Blessings also applies to this situation whenever such help proves necessary because of the lack of priests and deacons.

* * *

Follow-up: Ashes and How to Impose Them [3-10-2015]

In the wake of our Feb. 17 article, a priest wrote concerning the imposition of ashes on the forehead:

"Out of sheer curiosity, would you be able to enlighten me as to the sources for your answer concerning the imposition of ashes. Your answer was to the effect that 'In most English-speaking countries the prevailing custom seems to be that the priest places enough holy water into the ashes to form a kind of paste. The ashes are then daubed in the form of a cross on the forehead. Relatively little water is required, and the mix should not be excessively liquid.' As a priest of 48 years and one that has been involved in the study of liturgy, I have never encountered a rubric or even mention of the custom of imposing ash-paste on the faithful. I never read of such a practice until your mention of it and certainly have never done it or remember it being done. I look back to my childhood — which by revealing that I am 48 years post-ordination is a few years at best — and can never remember it being done anywhere I have ever been."

Perhaps the word “paste” was not the best choice, as I can see that this would indicate something different from what is, in fact, the case. I was trying to bring out the fact that in many European countries the ashes are totally dry and are imposed by the priest sprinkling the ashes upon the crown of the head by rubbing them between his fingers and usually without physically touching the head at all. In most English-speaking countries the priest touches the forehead of the person receiving ashes and leaves a cross. In order to do so, the ashes usually need to be at least moist and not totally dry; otherwise, at most, one achieves a barely visible smudge and leaves more ashes on the floor than on the forehead.

I — unsuccessfully — tried to express this difference of method with the word paste and apparently caused confusion for some readers.

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