This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
While this article is taken from a volume written well before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still relevant from an historical perspective, allowing us to study the history of Ash Wednesday.
The older pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima has been suppressed; ashes are now distributed during Mass.
The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday; the first day of the Lenten fast.
The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century.
On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of
Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of
clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.
In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient.
The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and honored with incense.
The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other
priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present.
In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.
There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents.
But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the "cor contritum quasi cinis" of the Dies irae) is of earlier date than was formerly supposed.
It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi,
XX 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men.
"We read," he says,
in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.
Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to
repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.
And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I 262-266).
It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolized by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary.
Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I
Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.