ASH-WEDNESDAY; the first of Lent. It is so called from the custom observed in the ancient church, of penitents expressing their humiliation at this time by appearing in sackcloth and ashes. But it is not certain that this was always done precisely on Ash-Wednesday, there being a perfect silence in the most ancient writers about it. The discipline used towards penitents in Lent, as described by Gratian, differed from their treatment at other times; for on Ash-Wednesday they were presented to the bishop, clothed in sackcloth, and barefooted: then the seven pentential psalms were sung; after which the bishop laid his hands on them, sprinkled them with holy water, and poured ashes upon their heads; declaring to them that as Adam was cast out of paradise, so they, for their sins, were cast out of the church. Then the inferior ministries expelled them out of the doors of the church. In the end of Lent, on the Thursday before Easter, they were again presented for reconciliation by the deacons and presbyters at the gates of the church. But this method of treating penitents in Lent carries with it the marks of more modern practice; for there was no use of holy water in the ancient discipline; nor seven penitential psalms in their service, but only one, viz. the fifty-first. Neither was Ash -Wednesday anciently the first day of Lent, till Gregory the Great first added it to Lent, to make the number of fasting days completely forty, which before were but thirty-six. Nor does it appear that anciently the time of imposing penance was confined to the beginning of Lent, but was granted at all times, whenever the bishop thought the penitent qualified for it. In Rome, the spectacle on this occasion is most ridiculous (1836 this author’s observation) After giving themselves up to all kinds of gaiety and licentiousness, during the carnival, till twelve o’clock on the Tuesday night, the people go on Ash-Wednesday morning into the churches, when the officiating priests put ashes on their heads, repeating the words, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” (Note. Christians who observe Ash Wednesday in the states do not celebrate carnival; it is not a well known holiday in the states. 2008)
The want of this discipline in the English church is at present supplied by reading publicly, on Ash-Wednesday, the curses denounced in the holy Scripture against several sorts of sins, the people repeating after each curse, Amen. –Henderson’s Buck.
The violet version of “Ash Wednesday Churchyard,” by Kathy Grimm