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The Tradition Behind
Ash Wednesday

Why Ashes?
Priests and Chastity
Justice and Layoffs
The Church and the Bible

Why Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Last February, on Ash Wednesday, I was wondering where the tradition of putting ashes on our foreheads started. The only answers I got, whenever I asked someone, was that it reminds us of our mortality. But I want to know where it started.

The use of ashes and dust with religious, magical or medical meanings was common among the ancients, says the New Catholic Encyclopedia. Ashes were often symbolic of mortality, mourning or penance.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, after Jonah has announced the destruction of Nineveh and the news reaches the king, he rises from the throne, lays aside his robe, puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes. The king then proclaims a fast. Nineveh mourns its sins and does penance (Jonah 3:1-6).

In foreseeing the destruction to come upon Israel, Jeremiah says, "O daughter of my people,...roll in the ashes. Mourn as for an only child with bitter wailing, for sudden upon us comes the destroyer" (6:26). Jeremiah calls Israel to conversion.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus reproaches Chorazin and Bethsaida saying, "For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (11:21).

Christians, then, seem to have taken the use of ashes as a sign of penance from Jewish tradition. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, ashes were originally signs of private penance. But early on they became part of the ritual for public penance.

Adolf Adam, in The Liturgical Year (Pueblo Publishing Company), points to Tertullian and Cyprian, in the third century, as evidence early Christians were familiar with ashes as a sign and part of the ritual for public penance.

As early as the 300's, local churches had a ritual for the beginning of public penance at the start of Lent. Those who had been guilty of public serious sins like murder, apostasy, heresy or adultery were clothed in a penitential garment and sprinkled with ashes.

The sinner was then expelled and led from the church as Adam had been cast out of Paradise. Later those ending their penance (which could go for years) were received back into the Church on Maundy Thursday. They were led back into the church in procession as part of a rite of reconciliation.

According to Herman Wegman in Christian Worship in East and West (Pueblo Press), texts and ceremonies were added to the rite for the reception of penitents in the ninth century, and carried over into the Pontificale Romanum of the Council of Trent.

Adolf Adam says public ecclesiastical penance disappeared around the end of the first millennium. Wegman suggests that the severity of the practice was at least partially the reason for its disappearance. But there was also a growing conviction that every person is a sinner and must do penance.

Pope Urban II (1088-1099) recommended the custom of all receiving ashes to all the churches. Ashes were put on the heads of men and the sign of the cross traced with ashes on the foreheads of women, presumably because their heads were covered.

In the 11th century there appeared a special prayer for the blessing of ashes. And the 12th century gave rise to the rule that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are to be made from the palm branches of the previous year.

Justice and Layoffs

When is a company justified in laying off its employees? Today you hear so much about corporate greed and higher dividends for shareholders. Does a Catholic institution, such as a hospital, have more of a responsibility to ensure the job security of its employees and to avoid layoffs?

I can't give you numbers that would justify laying off employees or reducing a work force. Situations could range from a business owned and administered by one person to a huge company with hundreds of employees and many investors or stockholders.

But surely the threat of going bankrupt would justify reducing a work force to the point where a business can survive and be profitable. To continue running a business at a loss means eventual collapse and ruin for everyone in the enterprise with damage to creditors.

Good and just management looks at the welfare of investors, employees and customers in its decisionmaking. The interests of all need to be balanced. What fair and just return can an investor expect? What are fair and just wages and decent working conditions for employees? What kind of quality, service and fair price can customers expect?

A good manager will try to schedule production and services to avoid layoffs. Good management would look for ways to increase productivity and sales to keep its work force occupied. But eventually changes in an industry or profession may simply doom it with the consequent loss of jobs and employment.

In that case there isn't much an employer can do. With the advent of electricity, candlemakers got laid off. When automobiles took over, livery workers disappeared. With electric refrigerators, the demand for ice tongs went down.

A Catholic institution, above all, should be aware of how the social encyclicals lay out its obligations to the institution's employees as well as to those it serves. Part of its concern should be managing its affairs to avoid large and sudden layoffs that disrupt the lives and welfare of workers.

If forced to reduce the institution's staff, management might do so by attrition. It should also provide severance pay and assist the employee in finding a new job.

Priests and Chastity

When a diocesan parish priest takes the vow of celibacy, is he also required to take the vow of chastity? Would you please define the two as pertaining to the diocesan priesthood? Also, if chastity is required, and the vow is broken, what happens to a priest then?

Bishops, priests and deacons are clerics. Canon #277 of the present Code of Canon Law governing Western-rite Catholics obliges clerics to observe perfect and perpetual continence and celibacy for the kingdom of heaven and that they "can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and humankind."

Canon #1037 requires that unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate and candidates for the priesthood must publicly assume before God and the Church the obligation of celibacy if they have not professed vows (including chastity) in a religious institute. Married men who are ordained to the permanent diaconate who become widowed may not remarry without a dispensation from the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and Divine Worship.

In the rite of ordination, those unmarried men to be ordained deacons manifest their intention to commit themselves to celibacy.

I believe some moral theologians would call this acceptance of the obligation of continence and celibacy an implicit vow.

Of course, all Christians are called to chastity. A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Paulist Press) defines chastity as: "that virtue which enables human beings to integrate sexuality within their whole personality according to their vocation in life: for the celibate, through complete abstention, for the married, through fidelity and for single persons, through self-control."

The violation of chastity by anyone is a sin if all the conditions of sin are present.

Clerics who attempt marriage are automatically suspended and face other penalties including dismissal from the clerical state (Canon #1394).

Clerics who live in concubinage or continue in other external sins against the Sixth Commandment that produce scandal are to be suspended. If they persist in their offenses, they can finally be dismissed from the clerical state.

In the case of other offenses against the Sixth Commandment committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor under the age of 16, the cleric is to be punished with just penalties, including dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.

That is the Church law in regard to the obligation of chastity and celibacy. In the case of conduct that is criminal in the civil law, the violator is also, of course, subject to civil penalties.

Matthew and the Virginity of Mary

As an article of faith we are taught and believe that Mary the Mother of God was "ever virgin." In speaking of St. Joseph, St. Matthew's Gospel (1:25) says: "and he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son...." Does this not infer that after Jesus' birth Mary and Joseph lived as husband and wife? How does one explain this to nonbelievers?

Any number of commentaries will throw light on verses 18-25 of the first chapter of Matthew.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the original text of Matthew was written in Greek and the author came from a Semitic background. Any English translation merely attempts to convey what the author meant in the original language.

Analyzing 1:25 in The Gospel According to Matthew (Sheed & Ward), Alexander Jones writes, "Matthew makes this statement of the period which directly concerns him, his purpose being to safeguard the virginal nature of the conception and birth of Jesus. Of the period following the birth he says nothing. His sentence would best be paraphrased: She brought forth a son without having relations with Joseph. The Semitic turn of phrase, 'not...until,' while denying the action for the period preceding the verb borne, implies nothing for the period which follows it: c.f. Genesis 8:7, 1 Timothy 4:13, etc."

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., says much the same thing in The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday).

Brown notes that to understand this passage we must look at the verse in its immediate context and the context of the whole Gospel. Matthew's immediate concern is to stress Mary's virginity before the child's birth and the fulfillment of the Isaian prophecy. And he says, in English when something is negated until a particular time, occurrence after that time is usually assumed.

But in Greek and Semitic, he instructs us, "such a negation often has no implication at all about what happened after the limit of the 'until' was reached."

From the Catholic Distance University: "Thank you very much for your mention of CHSI (Catholic Home Study Institute) in your February 1996 column....

"I want to update you. We now offer 23 accredited courses, not 12. Tuition is slightly higher: $330 for three-credit college courses and $255 for noncredit.

"Beginning in 1997, we will offer a master's degree in religious studies and effective March 25, 1996, our new name is The Catholic Distance University (CDU). We hope our new name will avoid confusion with the home-schooling movement. We do not educate children.

"Our new address is: P.O. Box 178, Paeonian Springs, VA 22129-0178."

The Wise Man welcomes your questions. If you have a question, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Wise Man, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.
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