Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Celebrating Ash Wednesday with Deacon Dulas, Part I

Here is part 1 of a series on Ash Wednesday by Deacon Jerry Dulas.  Thanks, Deacon!


Have you ever wondered where the rite of imposition of ashes comes from? The rite of the Imposition of Ashes comes from the ancient custom of expulsion from the Church. What we commonly call "excommunication." The ceremony of imposing ashes is a relic of the solemn ritual performed by the Bishop with public penitents. Whoever had committed a grave, public sin was bound to submit to public penance at the beginning of Lent. This custom existed in the church from the fourth through the tenth centuries. The penance consisted of exclusion from the Lord's Supper, but also included some acts of penance (acts that the person willingly submitted to, in order to prove his penitence) such as, fasting, prayer, mortification of the flesh, and other works of satisfaction.

The rite of expulsion itself involved the penitent receiving a penitential garb in solemn ritual and having their heads covered with ashes. Therefore the penitent put on sackcloth and ashes, so show their penitence, just like we often see in the Holy Scriptures. After they had put on the sackcloth, and had their heads covered with ashes, the Bishop would escort them to the door of the church, where they would be "expelled." This served as a public proclamation against the sin, and also served as a stern warning to all those who would want to commit such a sin, that the same would be done to them.

It should be pointed out that the person who was subjected to this had already expressed his penitence over committing this sin. So it differs in that respect to our modern excommunication, where the person is expelled from receiving communion, on account of his impenitence. And if you think this rite of expulsion was too stern, check out the canons from the seven ecumenical councils, and you will see that in some cases, depending upon the particular sin, the exclusion from communion could last years.

That brings us to how this rite of expulsion led to the imposition of ashes. As the centuries passed, the Church eased up on the penitential discipline it had enforced; And a lot of these penitential disciplines were enforced in private (which shows us the development of private confession and satisfaction, in which Luther and the Reformers did away with the satisfactions, but retained the practice of private confession and absolution for the benefit of the people). During the Middle ages, however, and one can assume because the rite of expulsion fell into disuse, but there were those who remembered it, and longed for its continued use, that many people voluntarily submitted themselves to the practice of penance by receiving the ashes upon their foreheads.

Even Charlemagne, asked to be signed with the sacred ashes upon his head, approaching the Bishop barefoot to request it. This of course led to its common use upon all those who desired it, and it is still offered today in some parishes, even among Lutherans. Like one's freedom to receive the Blessed Sacrament or not, the Imposition of Ashes is also a voluntary rite, for those who wish to confess their sinfulness, and their sorrow over their sin by receiving the ashes.

The rite developed into what it is today in Rome, and we can see the rite we use in this rite that has developed since the Middle ages. In Rome, the ashes were blessed in the Church of St. Anastasia. The place where all the crosses used for stational processions were kept. As the priests entered, vested in alb, with a violet stole and cope, an appropriate Introit psalm would be chanted. Psalm 69:16 served as the Introit antiphon, with Psalm 69:1 as the Introit Psalm verse. The entire Psalm 69 may be chanted as the Introit, which was probably the case in the Early church. After the Salutation, there were then four Collects prayed from the Epistle horn of the altar, which reflected an emphasis on penance. These prayers also talked about the significance and purpose of the ashes. After the prayers the Celebrant would then distribute the ashes to those who desired it, saying simply, "Remember, O Man, from dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." (Gen. 3:19)

The ashes used for the imposition are taken from the burned palm branches that were used in the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ashes are mixed with a small amount of anointing oil (enough to make the ashes spreadable, but not so that they clump up). They are placed upon the Epistle horn, prior to the service, in an plain, earthen vessel, or one of simple design and price.

Savior When in Dust to Thee, TLH 166


Deacon Dulas is ordained into the pastorate and member of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America ( In his own words, "My call is to serve as deacon and missionary-at-large to MN and WI at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Tony, WI. We are starting a mission here in Mayer, MN, and the surrounding area called St. Matthew Ev. Luth. Mission."

Like what you are reading? Check out Deacon Dulas' blog at The Deacon's Didache.

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