Stamping the Faithful With Ashes

And More on Criteria for Preparing the Altar

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ROME, MARCH 15, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In my parish on Ash Wednesday, the priests and laypeople use this "stamp," shaped in the form of a Jerusalem cross. After dipping it in the ashes, they stamp the people, one by one, as if they were branding a cow or something. Is not the meaning of Ash Wednesday the act of making the sign of the cross on one's forehead with the finger? Is not the stamp a cold and uncaring act toward the congregation? Is this form of distributing ashes acceptable? -- P.G., New York

A: I have never heard or seen this particular practice except in some places in the U.S., and effectively I would be of the opinion that its mechanical nature effectively detracts from the sense of ashes being imposed upon our heads.

The rubrics for the distribution of ashes state that the priest, on concluding, washes his hands, logically implying that he has physically handled the ashes and not just used a stamp.

Historically, the use of ashes as a sign of penance is already found in the Old Testament, and even Jesus speaks of the necessity of some sinners to do penance in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Tertullian, saints Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and many other Church Fathers make frequent reference to this practice, especially in relationship with the practice of beginning a period of public penance for grave sins.

Apart from the relatively few public penitents, many other devout Christians confessed at the beginning of Lent so as to be able to receive daily Communion during this season and asked to be covered with ashes as a sign of humility after having received absolution. In the year 1091 Pope Urban II recommended this practice to both clergy and laity. Subsequently the rite of blessing and imposing the ashes became generalized and swiftly assumed considerable importance in the liturgical life of the faithful. At first, the rite was separate from Mass but eventually entered into the Mass itself around the 12th century.

Initially, men received ashes sprinkled upon the crown of the head, while the ashes were imposed upon women by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. This difference probably stems from the simple fact that women were obliged to keep their heads covered in church.

Today, the mode of imposing ashes varies from country to country according to custom. In most English-speaking countries water is added to the ashes to form a paste which is imposed by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. Many Catholics leave the mark of the ashes unwashed during the day as an outward testimony of their faith.

In much of Italy and in some other Romance-language countries, water is not added to the ashes. Rather, the ashes are imposed by making a sign of the cross above the crown of the head as the ashes fall upon the hair. This mode has the advantage of capturing better the idea of ashes as dust but does not leave a visible sign that can last during the day, except upon those who happen to be bald.

The use of the stamp mentioned by our reader would appear to be motivated by a desire to favor the duration of the sign during the day, even though this is merely an incidental, albeit positive, aspect of one particular mode of imposition. The danger is that this process could detract from what is essential to the ritual gesture, the act of receiving the imposition of ashes as a sign of personal penance and conversion.

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Follow-up: Criteria for Preparing the Altar

Subsequent to our commentaries on the decoration of the altar (see March 1), a reader from Rochester, Minnesota, asked if it was possible to be more specific regarding some details. To wit: "1) How should one decorate the freestanding altar? How to decorate an ad orientem altar? 2) Where should flowers not be placed on an altar? I recently saw a photo of a celebration of the extraordinary form where flowers were displayed above the tabernacle! 3) On great days, if extra candles are desired, what is the best placement? 4) You mention the number of candles on various days. Do you know if the older ceremonial requiring this distribution is in force where there is regular choral celebration? 5) Do you know of good resources related to Catholic practice in church decoration? I know about the superb book that was put out years ago by the Flower and Altar Guilds of the National Cathedral on using flowers. I think that this could be used without difficulty in Catholic parishes with very large buildings, but I believe it is out of print."

It is not possible to go into detail with any great authority, given that the liturgical laws are themselves very succinct and leave much to the personal judgment of pastoral agents. In a way this is a good thing, since differences in church architecture, cultural tradition, and practical logistics mean that there might be more than one legitimate solution.

The closest that comes to official norms regarding flowers in the United States is found in the episcopal conference's document "Built of Living Stones." Regarding floral decoration these guidelines state:

"§124 Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.

"§126 In the course of the liturgical year, the feasts and memorials of Our Lady and of saints with special significance for the parish afford opportunities to show devotion by adorning their images with tasteful floral arrangements or plants.

"§129 The use of living flowers and plants, rather than artificial greens, serves as a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community. Planning for plants and flowers should include not only the procurement and placement but also the continuing care needed to sustain living things."

While not overly specific they do give some good principles to help interpret what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal terms "moderate" floral decoration. Floral displays should not obstruct the liturgical action nor should processions have to weave their way around such displays. For a freestanding altar, flowers may be arranged in front of the altar in a way that emphasizes the feast but should not be an obstacle, for example, to walking around it while incensing. As a general rule flowers should not be placed on the altar table.

The above norms refer obviously to a freestanding altar. An old high altar still in use would follow in general terms the norms in force for the extraordinary form.

The general principle regarding flowers in this form is that they are unnecessary, but there is no law against them on feast days in accordance with local custom. They should be used with great restraint. The Ceremonial of Bishops for this form suggests small vases of little flowers on the greater feasts (I,xii,12). Natural flowers or those made of silk or other precious fabrics may be used. Forbidden is the use of flowers made of porcelain, glass, plastic or fabric other than silk.

Flowers may be placed between the candlesticks upon the altar as well as upon the lower steps leading up to the altar but never in front of the tabernacle door.

Regarding altar candles in this form, the relative norms are that they should be placed symmetrically on each side of the cross, upon the altar table or on the upper steps of the altar. Six candles are generally used on the high altar, two on side altars. The number can be increased for a special function such as the Forty Hours' Devotion. Candlesticks with multiple branches are forbidden.

The Ceremonial of Bishops (I,xii,11) says that the candlesticks or the candles should be of different sizes and placed in ascending order toward the center of the altar in such a way as to form a kind of pyramid with the cross. However, equal-sized candles are also admitted.

There are no precise rules regarding how to place candlesticks in the ordinary form, and the disposition can be varied according to circumstances, depending, for example, on the number of concelebrants or the number of sacred vessels required for a specific celebration.

Although I know of no specific title regarding church floral decorations, specialist publishers such as the Archdiocese of Chicago's Liturgy Training Publications have several books that touch upon the subject of decoration in general.

I hope this covers most of our reader's inquiries.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.