Another Ash Wednesday. With repeatedly remarked upon but really unsurprising regularity, the annual cycle continues its progress from month to month and season to season, bringing us once again to the de facto centerpiece of the Church's calendar, Lent and Easter. As the Church prays in one of her Lenten Prefaces, by your gracious gift each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure. And so we start another Lent with Ash Wednesday, what surely has become one of the most popular days in the year (increasingly a rival even to Christmas in church attendance).
The oh-so-popular ritual of receiving ashes today is, of course, a relic of the ancient expulsion of penitents as part of their period of public penance prior to their public reconciliation with the Church prior to Easter. The rigors of the ancient Order of penitents practically guaranteed that it would eventually die out, as it predictably did. The one relic that remained of it, however, the imposition of ashes, became overwhelmingly popular and something desired by everyone else - and has remained so to this day.
Growing up n the Bronx in the American Catholic Church's post-war glory days, I remember how ashes were imposed at the end of each of the parish's four regular morning Masses as well as, without anyone having to wait through Mass, hourly at 3:00, 4:00, and 5:00 p.m., plus, of course, for us school children. Some years we would be brought over to church to receive our ashes. In other years, the precious ashes would be brought to us in our classrooms!
The other big collective Lenten event we did together as a school was, of course, the Friday afternoon Stations of the Cross, at which we all got to sing the glorious 13th-century hymn, Stabat Mater, which we usually managed to render as lugubriously as possible. We were also issued "mite boxes," in which to put our pennies (or larger coins) that we were somehow supposedly saving by our childish acts of self-denial. How much (or little) one put in one's "mite box" was effectively a private matter, however, as was the seriousness of whatever self-denial we actually did.
Another individual Lenten practice which was widely encouraged and which inevitably took on a quasi-public character was attendance at daily Mass. Never being very good at self-denial, but always fond of religion's ritual expressions, that was a devotion I took too quite comfortably, Unless otherwise assigned as an altar boy to serve at some other Mass, that meant attending the 7:00 a.m. parish Mass, which gave me plenty of time to come home after to have some breakfast before reporting to school. adults also added daily Mass to their Lenten schedules in surprisingly large numbers - enough to warrant the parish to assign extra priests to distribute Communion (right after the Consecration as was common in those days) and also to take up a collection at daily Masses all during Lent.
In those days, we all brought our Missals to church and followed along, reading silently in English what the priest was reading barely audibly in Latin. On "ferial" days (weekdays with no saint's feast day), the ancient Lenten stational Masses would be celebrated with their (often lengthy) readings from the Old testament, which made the Mass texts so much more interesting that those of almost any other time of the year.
Most of that is gone now, of course. The rigors of earlier centuries had been much mitigated by my childhood, but Lent was still serious enough to be affect ordinary lives. (I remember how the popular women's magazines even featured special Lenten menus for housewives to use during the season.) Now, like the rigorous ancient order of penitents, the Lenten fast has been effectively mitigated out of existence. And, after the temporary uplift of Ash Wednesday, weekday attendance drops again the next day to its typical low.
For all that, Lent in its much mitigated form has still survived and remains for those who choose to avail themselves of its promise, the Church's great annual gift to all of us to focus on where we are going and who we hope to become, not just for now but for ever.