Getting Dirty

One day of every year, it is a simple matter to spot observant Catholics in the workplace or at the mall. That day is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent – that time of the year when Catholics make little personal sacrifices for reasons that I doubt are clear to many of them.

I recall the days of my youth, when I was caught up in the coils of Catholicism. On Ash Wednesday, I would stop off at church on my way to school so that the priest could smear oily ashes on my forehead. Then, all day long, as I felt particularly holy, my non-Catholic classmates would make fun of me and attempt to clear the smudge off of my face.

Why did I go through that every year? Why do observant Catholics do that today? There is more than one response to that question.

I do not doubt that some do it in heartfelt obedience to the teachings of their cult. I suspect that more than a few do it simply because they do not want any of their Catholic friends to consider them to be somewhat less than committed. I know from the comments of some of my long ago Catholic friends that they got smudged because "Sister made me have it done." There likely are others who get the smear in order simply because they have always done it..

I have been told, by some who considered themselves to be knowledgeable of things Catholic, that members of their religion have been getting dirty on Ash Wednesday since the earliest days of the church. At least one authoritative Catholic information source seems to disagree with that idea:

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead . . .of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."-- Herbert Thurston, Ash Wednesday, "The Catholic Encyclopedia", Volume I, © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition © 2008 by Kevin Knight

From the foregoing, it seems clear that Mama Church has not being smearing greasy goo on the foreheads of her faithful since the earliest days of the church. In fact, she has only been playing with that particular dirt for 1300 or so years. Still a long time, but several hundred years separated this 'sacramental' from the time immediately after Christ's sacrificial death.

How did the idea for this strange custom originate?

In ancient times, throwing ashes on one's head was a graphic symbol of extreme sorrow, especially for wrongs done. It was a graphic symbol to that person, as well as anyone witnessing this act, to "remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." We maintain this vestige of that ancient custom by having our heads anointed with ashes at the beginning of Lent. In addition, sackcloth was often worn because it was coarse, uncomfortable, and far from glamorous -- another sign of penitence.

An additional penitential practice in olden times was fasting. Today we have only two official days of fasting during Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But we also abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. These are practices that are the opposite of feasting, anti-partying, if you will. We undertake these, and other personal penances, in order that we can celebrate Easter pure in spirit.--Br. James Thompson, Sackcloth and Ashes, Liturgy Corner, © 2001 All Saints Catholic Newman Center [My emphasis]

There you have it. In order to mark the day our Lord Jesus fulfilled His own prophetic statement by rising up from the grave, Catholics don't eat meat on Lenten Fridays, endure two whole days of what is comically called fasting, give up something they supposedly don't like and get oily soot smeared on their foreheads in order to be considered—at least among themselves—to be pure in spirit. Having done all that, it's time to start the Easter egg hunt before attending Mass to show off their fine new clothes.

I always am surprised when Catholics point to out-of-context verses from Scripture to support their pagan goings-on, given their oft-claimed charge that the Bible is a dead letter. One of the verses they claim supports getting their faces dirty on Ash Wednesday is Daniel 9:3

And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: [KJV]

This verse is part of the prophet's confession of Israel's rebellion and sinful ways, which were consequences of having turned aside from obedience to God. Acknowledging one's faults is the beginning of repentance, which is a turning away from former ways. Daniel's confession continues:

4 And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;
5 We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments:
6 Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
—Daniel 9:4-6 [KJV]

Daniel's words call to mind the words God spoke to Moses when He gave to the prophet what we know as the Ten Commandments:

4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
—Exodus 20:4-6 [KJV]

In speaking these words, our God was not acting as a critic of artistic expression. He was making it absolutely clear that He was censuring idolatry and false worship. He made it clear that failure to keep this commandment would seriously affect Hebrew generations yet to be born. This is not to be understood that the Hebrew generations to come would be punished for the present generation's disobedience. Rather, they would imitate what they saw in their parents' behavior and would practice the idolatry and disobedience of their fathers. For this they would be punished. The Lord God was not saying that He would punish the Hebrew peoples for so long as they existed, but that He would show compassion and mercy to those who turned aside from their evil ways and kept His commandments.

So what does all this have to do with Daniel 9:3? Well, just as Daniel wrote that he would put on sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate contrition, it appears that the Catholic Church considers getting a dirty face to be the equivalent of Daniel's pious entreaty. There is a difference, however. Whereas Daniel was in an agony of remorse when he wrote said these things, Catholics for the most part, I believe, are merely going through the motions—putting on a show for their fellows and anyone else who happens to notice. This seemed to me when I was a young Catholic, and still does today, to be a boastful expression similar to wearing a sign that reads; "Look at me. I am holier than you." Nothing like the meaning of the cliché phrase defined here:

TO WEAR SACKCLOTH AND ASHES - "To be contrite, penitent or chagrined over something one has done. It was an ancient Hebrew custom to wear sackcloth dusted with or accompanied by ashes as a sign of humbleness in religious ceremonies." From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985). Re: sackcloth and ashes, (C) ESC January 20, 2004

So Catholic faithful go to their churches on Ash Wednesday to receive the mark of what? Penitence? Hardly; for they they surely do not repent--turn aside--from their idolatry and false relligion. Are they flaunting their pagan ways before God in the eyes of the world? It seems so. 

Getting a dirty face marks the beginning of Lent, but just what is Lent?

Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days to prepare for his ministry. It was for Him a time of contemplation, reflection, and preparation. By observing Lent, most Christians join Jesus on His retreat. Lent consists of the forty days before Easter. In the western Church, we skip over the Sundays when we count the days of Lent, because Sunday is always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection. Therefore, the first day of Lent in the western Church is always a Wednesday.-- Why Ashes?, Holy Ash Wednesday, © 2001-2004 NetGlimse.com. [My emphasis]

There you have it. Christians [read 'Catholics'] who observe Lent "join Jesus on His retreat!" Give me a break. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing Himself for His active ministry. Now, there are some who argue that ancient Hebrews understood the term "forty days" not to mean forty actual days, but a long time. Whichever understanding you have, I seriously doubt that our Savior ate or drank anything during that time.

Jesus fasted, which I understand to mean 'ate nothing.' How does getting a dirty face, observing two Catholic parodies of fasting and abstaining from chocolate-covered pistachios equate to joining Jesus on His retreat?

The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, criticizes the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Is 58:5).--Ibid

When the Lord God spoke the above words to His prophet, He was responding to the whining of the Hebrew nation, who were upset that though they had fasted and afflicted their souls, the Almighty had not answered their prayers. In the verses that follow, God lets them know that fasting and self-affliction were not what He wanted. Rather, the fast that God demanded was something quite different:

6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.
9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:
-- Isaiah 58:6-10 [KJV]

Just as God was not pleased with symbolic, but empty, fasting and penitence in Isaiah's day, so must He not be pleased with the hollow piety of the Catholic observance of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten 'fast.' The Romish position is not, of course, in agreement with God's words given through Isaiah:

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men.—Herbert Thurston, Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham, Catholic Encyclopedia, © 2008 by Kevin Knight

Are you in a quandary over whether to observe the hollow Catholic observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent or to please God by conforming to His admonitions to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and be united with one's family?

The answer seems clear to me, as it was to Joshua who said,

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.-- Joshua 24:15 [KJV]

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