Ashes and Fire

Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day Lenten fast, has come and gone. It is the day when professing Catholics and ecumenical-minded professing Christians go to church to have their priest make the sign of the cross on their foreheads with holy ashes as he utters the words, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." They then go about their business with a dirty smudge on their foreheads, ostentatiously proclaiming their supposed humility and penitent state for all the world to see. The sacramental ashes used are made by burning leftover palm fronds that were blessed on the previous Palm Sunday. They are prayed over, sprinkled them with holy water and then fumigated with incense. In this practice, the Romish church, which boasts of being Judaism fulfilled, continues a custom of ancient Judaism and other Eastern cultures.

Seeing that this is one of the indigenous customs the Catholic Church adapted to in its efforts to gain control over native populations; and recalling one of the documents of Vatican II (Nostra Aetate), I thought it might be useful to take a brief look at the origins of the Catholic practice of inviting priests to smear soot on the faces.

Since olden times, Rome has not been reluctant to incorporate pagan traditions and practices into her theology if by so doing they might facilitate convincing pagans to bend the knee to Rome. Vatican II seems to confirm that mind set still holds sway in Rome:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. - Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965

Just how does the Roman church "recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.?" An example of this openness to pagan practice may be found in the RCC Easter ritual of the New Fire. By visiting the Easter page of the Catholic Encyclopedia the reader might learn many things about Easter practices, their origins and how they were absorbed into Catholic belief and practice, including this about Easter fire:

"The Easter Fire is lit on the top of mountains (Easter mountain, Osterberg) and must be kindled from new fire, drawn from wood by friction (nodfyr); this is a custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of spring over winter. The bishops issued severe edicts against the sacrilegious Easter fires (Conc. Germanicum, a. 742, c.v.; Council of Lestines, a. 743, n. 15), but did not succeed in abolishing them everywhere. The Church adopted the observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the desert and to the Resurrection of Christ; the new fire on Holy Saturday is drawn from flint, symbolizing the Resurrection of the Light of the World from the tomb closed by a stone (Missale Rom.). In some places a figure was thrown into the Easter fire, symbolizing winter, but to the Christians on the Rhine, in Tyrol and Bohemia, Judas the traitor – Catholic Encyclopedia, Easter, 6. The Easter Fire, quoting Reinsberg-Düringfeld, Das festliche Jahr, 112 sq.

Catholicism likes fire. The liturgical use of fire is explained here.

Some might wish to compare the Catholic use of fire with the pagan origins of the Easter Fire, as documented by Sir James George Frazer in his book, The Golden Bough:A Study in Magic and Religion. The chapter begins with these words:

ANOTHER occasion on which these fire-festivals are held is Easter Eve, the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On that day it has been customary in Catholic countries to extinguish all the lights in the churches, and then to make a new fire, sometimes with flint and steel, sometimes with a burning-glass. At this fire is lit the great Paschal or Easter candle, which is then used to rekindle all the extinguished lights in the church. In many parts of Germany a bonfire is also kindled, by means of the new fire, on some open space near the church. It is consecrated, and the people bring sticks of oak, walnut, and beech, which they char in the fire, and then take home with them. Some of these charred sticks are thereupon burned at home in a newly-kindled fire, with a prayer that God will preserve the homestead from fire, lightning, and hail. Thus every house receives “new fire.” Some of the sticks are kept throughout the year and laid on the hearth-fire during heavy thunder-storms to prevent the house from being struck by lightning, or they are inserted in the roof with the like intention. Others are placed in the fields, gardens, and meadows, with a prayer that God will keep them from blight and hail. Such fields and gardens are thought to thrive more than others; the corn and the plants that grow in them are not beaten down by hail, nor devoured by mice, vermin, and beetles; no witch harms them, and the ears of corn stand close and full. The charred sticks are also applied to the plough. The ashes of the Easter bonfire, together with the ashes of the consecrated palm-branches, are mixed with the seed at sowing. A wooden figure called Judas is sometimes burned in the consecrated bonfire, and even where this custom has been abolished the bonfire itself in some places goes by the name of “the burning of Judas."

Fires and ashes are representative of ways that Catholicism has incorporated Pagan customs into her Christian religious system. For a delightful fantasy trip, I invite readers to visit the Catholic Encyclopedia, where they might read all about the practices, origins and superstitions surrounding the Catholic celebration of Palm Sunday.

Another quaint practice during the Catholic observance of the Easter season is the Lenten fast, which I examine here.

It is clear that, in the case of the Roman Church, anything goes when it comes to luring the lost into the suffocating embrace of Catholicism—even the use of Pagan Animist beliefs and practices. Just give the teachings and practices the unmerited label of “Christian” and bait the hook: Catholic evangelism 101.

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