It is the 17th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
Memento, homo, quid pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return).
Today is Ash Wednesday, and so today, we forego any standard template to give a quick rundown on this well-known but not always well understood day on the church calendar. If you have a Master's degree in Lenten studies, this might be a real snoozer for you. Still, for most of us, Ash Wednesday and its attendant practices can tell us something about the church's history and something of a victory for the modern ecumenical movement.
Ash Wednesday begins the 40-day penitential season that begins 46 days before Easter. Why the discrepancy? Because Sundays are not counted in Lent. Sundays are for celebrating the Resurrection, and so Lenten practices are paused. Or should they be? Well, this is part of the fun of learning about the ancient and modern practice of penitence. Try as some might to nail down what "must happen" on this day. The practices and predilections of the populace tend to drive what we see throughout history.
Why 40 days? See the Old Testament and Jesus' trip to the wilderness. Why Ashes? See the Old Testament, again. Ashes and Sackcloth, usually with fasting representing shame, mourning, and penance.
The dating of Easter and the setting of the Lenten season goes back to the Council of Nicea in 325, although a short penitential season leading up to Easter has been practiced since at least the 2nd century. Gregory the Great is said to have further consolidated the practice and set Ash Wednesday as 46 days before Easter. But it was likely not for everyone. You may be familiar with the ancient church's practice of admitting catechumens (people who wanted to join the faith) into a season of preparation for their baptism at the Easter vigil.
Tied to this is the practice of public penance for those who may have been excommunicated. We have records of those wishing to be readmitted to the church having ashes placed on their foreheads in a public service on this day. The "dies cinerum," or day of ashes, and a Lenten fast kick off the season in the church year.
In 1091 Pope Urban II cemented Ash Wednesday, the season and the fast at the Council of Benevento. The Catholic church categorized the ashes as "sacramentals," that's like "sacrament adjacent." Think of Holy Water— anyone can touch it, lay people can impose the physical blessing, and it can be taken to the sick. For the past decade or so, you may have seen the increasingly popular "Ashes to Go" centers popping up in cities around America.
The Western Catholic practice became more and more codified between 1091 and the 16th century, and then… Reformation madness! Anglicans still did it but made a point of it not being tied to the older Catholic practice. The Lutherans, predictably, just kept doing it, not caring too much if it looked Catholic, and the Reformed and Dissenting crowd dropped the practice like it was hot.
But then, in the 20th century, the practice became a surprise ecumenical hit. Catholics, Methodists, Non-denoms, Lutherans, and even the Reformed have reintroduced the practice, usually with theological or regional distinctives.
For those who practice fasting for this day, or at all during the penitent season, please remember that many water mammals are classified as "fish." Both Beavers and Capybarra's are back on the menu.
A blessed, happy, solemn Ash Wednesday today, the 17th of February.
The Reading for today comes from Malcolm Guite, "Ash Wednesday."
Receive this cross of Ash upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday's cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognize in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. Christopher Gillespie, MA Lenten Studies, produces the show. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.