Ash Wednesday is coming soon. As such, I believe it timely to make clear an incorrect theological/liturgical statement that was in the Jan.25th bulletin entry entitled, “Treasures From Our Tradition.” In that segment on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick there was a parenthetical comment that was not accurate. Trying to parallel the Anointing of the Sick with the sacramental of placing ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday, the article stated, “For the same reason, they [children] do not receive ashes on Ash Wednesday” (Bracket is added by me for clarification of context). Plain and simple, no such rubric exists. Furthermore, there is no good reason that I can think of to reject anyone who comes forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, regardless of age or Christian faith tradition, In fact, the rubric in the Roman Missal for the distribution of ashes clearly states, “…the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him….” From the standpoint of the giver of the ashes, good faith should be assumed on the part of the receiver.
It is not generally the practice to offer children the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick who are under the age of reason and have not previously received Reconciliation. This is because the Sacrament of Reconciliation is intimately wrapped within the anointing itself. Placing of ashes on children, however, has no such conditions placed upon it. Furthermore, the placing of ashes is not a sign of communion, as Eucharist is. Children under the age of reason have no need to repent due to their lack of culpability. However, I would never recommend the withdrawal of offering ashes to children or anyone else just as I would never discourage someone from learning the sign of the cross, praying a rosary, or attending Mass. The reception of ashes can be a way to teach our children one of the many sacred traditions of our faith. The reception of ashes is open for the good of the faithful which can help them in their spiritual walk and may very well mark the beginning of repentance of some particular sin in their lives. Repentance is something everyone should learn and practice.
In expectation of a common question about Ash Wednesday, the rubrics found in the Book of Blessings states, "This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon.” In addition, the help of lay ministers is critical in the offering of ashes to those in nursing homes and other locations where needed.
For the really geeky liturgist, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but what the 1962 Missal describes as a First Class Ferial Day (derived from the Latin “feria” meaning “free day”) which out ranks any other feasts that may coincide with that date. The current General Instructions to the Roman Missal (GIRM ¶59 §2) does not give a title for this kind of liturgical observation, but its ranking and precedence over other potential memorials or feasts is the same as in the 1962 Missal. Holy Week also has the same liturgical ranking. All the faithful, of course, are highly encouraged to fully participate in all of these profound liturgical celebrations which are special in their uniqueness in the liturgical calendar. If that is totally confusing, check out my brief explanation of the principle of “Progressive Solemnity” at frbill.org/liturgicaldefs.html.
Finally, some folks have asked in the past about the variations of placing ashes on the faithful. When watching papal Masses on TV, people have noticed that the Holy Father sprinkles ashes on the tops of the heads of those coming to him while we rub the ashes on people’s foreheads in the sign of the cross. The rubrics do not offer any explicit help here. Instead, it is a matter of cultural custom. For example, most English speaking countries have the ashes marked on their foreheads while Spain, Italy, and several Latin American countries sprinkle the dry ashes on the crown of the head. There may be even other local customs that dictate how this ritual is done. The most important thing to remember is the meaning of this ritual. The Directory for Popular Piety may be of great help here:
"The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment.”
May this coming Ash Wednesday and all of Lent bring you new grace from God to help us all repent of those things that are obstacles to God’s love.
Fr. William Holtzinger