Stamping the Faithful With Ashes

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Stamping the Faithful With Ashes

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In my parish on Ash Wednesday, the priests and laypeople use this "stamp," shaped in the form of a Jerusalem cross. After dipping it in the ashes, they stamp the people, one by one, as if they were branding a cow or something. Is not the meaning of Ash Wednesday the act of making the sign of the cross on one's forehead with the finger? Is not the stamp a cold and uncaring act toward the congregation? Is this form of distributing ashes acceptable? — P.G., New York

A: I have never heard or seen this particular practice except in some places in the U.S., and effectively I would be of the opinion that its mechanical nature 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.

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, 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 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.

Today, the mode of imposing ashes varies from country to country according to custom. In most English-speaking countries water is added to the ashes to form a paste which is imposed by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. Many Catholics leave the mark of the ashes unwashed during the day as an outward testimony of their faith.

In much of Italy and in some other Romance-language countries, water is not added to the ashes. Rather, the 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.

The use of the stamp mentioned by our reader 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.

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Follow-up: Stamping the Faithful With Ashes [3-29-2011]

In the wake of our March 15 column on using stamps to impose ashes on Ash Wednesday, a reader asked: "Your article states something about the priest washing his hands after distributing ashes. Does this mean that ashes are not supposed to be distributed by laymen assisting the priest? We usually have about four to six laypersons doing it along with him. I hope this is not illicit."

I used the rubric on washing the hands to underline that the minister should physically touch the ashes. The distribution of ashes is not reserved to the priest and deacons, and lay ministers may assist if required.

Another reader had asked about a practice in a German parish. He wrote: "Is it right to celebrate the Mass of Ash Wednesday on the First Sunday of Lent — including the distribution of ashes — as our priest does here? Since he began this three to four years ago many people no longer feel obliged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday — fasting and abstinence are no longer even remembered!"

Most Eastern Churches begin Lent ahead of the Roman rite on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and do not celebrate Ash Wednesday as such. It is not permissible, however, for a Latin-rite priest to transfer Ash Wednesday to the following Sunday. The Sundays of Lent cannot be substituted with any other liturgy, not even for a solemnity such as the Annunciation.

It is probable that the priest is motivated by a good intention such as facilitating the imposition of ashes to as many people as possible. At the same time, it must be remembered that receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent, whether within or outside Mass, is a highly commendable but not obligatory practice for Catholics. There is no need to transfer a rite which nobody is obliged to attend.

This practice can also have the undesirable effect mentioned by our reader of obscuring the Ash Wednesday fast and abstinence in the mind of the faithful and perhaps even weakening the overall sense of Lent as a penitential season.

I would therefore suggest to our correspondent that he approach either the priest, or if necessary the bishop, so that this practice is abandoned in the future.

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