Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Ash Wednesday

17 February A.D. 2010

Ordinary of the Mass
Blessing of Ashes-Mass Text

    This morning we have received one of the great sacramentals of the Church—the blessed ashes which usher in the season of Lent, during which we will draw a little bit away from the world, and thus a little bit closer to God.

    The sacramentals differ from the Sacraments it two very important qualities.  The seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ while on earth, so their number is fixed.  Also, the Sacraments operate through the power of Christ—if we receive the outward sign of the Sacrament, we unfailingly receive the Sacrament—unless we had some positive intention not to receive it.  That is why we can baptize or even confirm an infant—for the infant has no contrary intention, and the power of Christ operates through His minister as the water is poured and the child is baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

    The sacramentals, on the other hand, are creations of Christ’s Church.  They may be very numerous, for the Church can attach a blessing to almost anything that will be used for a good purpose.  But the sacramentals are more dependant on the prayers of the Church and the intentions of the person who receives them.  They are effective to the degree that we receive them in a humble and pious manner, seeking to conform our wills to the theme of the Church, which they convey.

When we read this morning’s epistle and Gospel, we almost came away with the idea that we shouldn’t receive the ashes!  The prophet Joel tells us that we are to “rend our hearts and not our garments.”[1]  Our Lord tells us that we are not to “look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to be seen as fasting by men.”[2]  But really, this is precisely how the sacramentals operate—they are but some tiny symbol that is intended to impress religious fervor on our hearts.  Today that symbol is a thin wisp of ashes, which may fade even before we have the opportunity to wash our foreheads, but hopefully will be retained in our hearts and minds for these next forty day.

    On Palm Sunday you will not receive a blessed palm tree, but only a leaf or two to remind you of the royalty of Christ the King, whose Last Supper, Passion, and Death will be commemorated during that week.

    A few weeks ago on the feast of our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, (Candlemas) we blessed the candles that will burn on the altar for the coming year, and the little votive candles which we may choose to light when we come to pray.  But the sign of the sacramental that we received was but a thin little wax taper, a small token, “so that our hearts, being illumined by invisible fire, by the radiance of the Holy Ghost, may be delivered from the blindness of all vice.”[3]

    The readings on Candlemas were also instructive for this day.  The prophet Malachy spoke to us about the “refining fire and the fuller’s herb,” with which God will cleanse the souls of those who are faithful to Him.[4]  With his herb, the fuller turns the coarse and dirty wool of sheep into fit cloth.  The fire of the jeweler burns away the impurities of silver or gold, so that only the precious metal remains, and sparkles in the light.[5]

    The ashes we received this morning remind us of our mortality, the fleetingness of life, and the importance of living that life in close union with the God who sustains us in this life—and with Whom we may hope to be happy in the next.  The ashes remind us of the need to do penance for our sins and the sins of our people.  The ashes urge us to renounce the innocent pleasures of the world, so that we may learn to renounce the not‑so‑innocent temptations that come into everyone’s life.

    Beyond the customary fasting, abstinence, and prayer of Lent, I would invite you to attend Mass as often as possible—to receive our Lord frequently in the intimacy of Holy Communion—to stand by Him at the foot of the Cross as daily we renew His holy Sacrifice.  I invite you, also, to hear the Scriptures read during those Masses—much of them written from the Old Testament perspective of those who eagerly awaited the coming of Jesus Christ.  And on those days when you are unable to assist at Mass, to read what is given of those Scriptures in your missal.

    So today we have received one of the great sacramentals.  Understand what the blessed ashes symbolize, and write their meaning on your heart.  Wash them from your foreheads so as not “to be seen fasting by men.”  And go and keep a good and holy Lent in the presence of Almighty God.


[2]   Matthew vi: 16-21,

[3]   Third prayer of the blessing of candles on February 2nd.

[4]   Malachy iii: 1-4,

[5]   It is interesting to note that while many of the prophecies read during Lent refer to the coming of the Suffering Savior, Malachy and Joel are, in some sense, prophets of the New Covenant.  Malachy is the one who speaks of the  future when from the “rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation”(Malachy i: 11,  Joel is the prophet quoted by Peter on Pentecost: “And I will shew wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath: blood and fire, and vapour of smoke. 20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and manifest day of the Lord come” (Acts ii:19-20  The reference is to Joel ii-29ff.,


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