Saturday, 25 February 2017

Ashes and Ash Wednesday

Tomorrow is Quinquagesima Sunday. March will be arriving with Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. On that day, fasting and abstinence (without substitution) will be mandatory. Most Filipino Catholics, however, try to avoid this obligation by receiving ashes very late or in the evening, as if the obligation itself depended on the ashes.

Whether we receive ashes or not, we are bound to fast and abstain from fleshmeat from 12:00 midnight to 11:59 pm of Ash Wednesday. Whether we receive ashes in the morning, at noon, or in the evening, we are bound to eat only one full meal and two small collations, all of which contain no meat, for the entire day. Otherwise, if we disfigure our faces first and then fast and abstain, the words of the Gospel would be upon us: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their face in order to appear to men as fasting” (Mt. 6, 16–17).

Here in this archipelago we call our homeland, on Ash Wednesday, we will be receiving ashes of varying degrees of moistness. Why are our ashes moist? Why do we tolerate moist ashes? Why do we even have moist ashes, in the first place?

We have not yet discovered any directive from the local hierarchy sanctioning the use of wet ashes on Ash Wednesday, so this probably is a matter of individual practice elevated to the mainstream. (If such a directive does exist, please inform us, so we do not persist in our ignorance.) The general opinion tolerating moist ashes seems to have something to do with gravity. Dry ashes do not easily adhere to the forehead, they say. So instead of pure dust, an ash paste is traced upon our foreheads.

How our ashes get moist is probably due to the “vessel” that holds blessed water used in most Philippine parishes. If it is not an empty alcohol bottle, it would be a cylindrical receptacle that looks like a shampoo bottle. We can imagine how these “vessels” dispense holy water. Instead of droplets as one would expect to come out of the head of an aspergillum, we would see streams projected out in different parabolic trajectories. That would be very, very messy if there are a lot of tiny ash containers for the legion of EMCs who will also impose ashes. So instead of sprinkling the lot, the priest will deliver a focused stream to every container, and—presto!—we have our ash paste.

But what do the rubrics of the Missal instruct? The rubrics of the OF Missal direct the priest thus: aspergit cineres aqua benedicta. This, in English, says: he sprinkles the ashes with blessed water. The word is sprinkle, not soak. If soak had been the case, the rubrics would have said: madefacit cineres aqua benedicta. The rubrics of the EF Missal have no special instruction regarding the sprinkling, except adding an adverb: ter aspergit cineres aqua benedicta. The priest sprinkles blessed water on the ashes thrice.

What is the point of this exercise? Dry or wet, they are ashes in matter, form and substance. Wet ashes are more attuned to the exigencies of our time (the exigency being the “vessel” of holy water). Dry ashes are a thing of the past anyway, used by the Jews, by the first Christians, and by everyone who preceded us. How do we even know the ashes they used were dry? Holy Writ often uses the word spargo or its derivatives (aspergo, conspergo, etc.) when speaking about ashes. We all know it is easier to sprinkle ashes when they are dry as dust, than when they are colloidal as paste. This is, therefore, a desperate plea to our priests to restore dry ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Let us end this plea with an instruction from the 1931 Ordo of the Philippines:
Cineres super capita fidelium imponendi aridi esse debent ut pulvis. Imponendi autem sunt in formam crucis, clericis super tonsuram, laicis super capillos vel frontem, nunquam vero super capitis tegumentum, nisi solis monialibus.
Allow us to translate:
The ashes that are to be imposed upon the heads of the faithful must be dry as dust. They are aslo to be imposed in the form of a cross, on the tonsure (for clergy), on the hair or on the forehead (for laypeople), and never on the covering of the head (unless for nuns only).
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

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