“Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris”. The words spoken by God in the garden of Eden, and accompanying the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, mark the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting and penance, during which Christians prepare for the great feast of Easter. “Remember, for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3,19), is the same phrase that characterizes the peculiar Celebration of Ash Wednesday. Traditionally obtained from the olive branches blessed in occasion of Palm Sunday of the previous year, the ashes and the rite of their imposition has ancient origins.
The Biblical Meaning
From Abraham to Judith, the ashes, assume a twofold significance in the history of the Old Testament. They are a sign of the weak and fragile condition of man. Abraham, addressing God says: ” Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18,27). Job, recognizing the profound limits of his existence, with a sense of extreme prostration, says: ” God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes,” (Gb 30,19). But the ash is also a sign of penance, of the one who realizes his “wicked” action and decides to “repent”. Known, to this purpose, is the text of the conversion of the inhabitants of Nineveh after the preaching of Jonah: “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3,5-6). Even Judith invites the people to do penance so that God intervenes to liberate them: “And all the men and women of Israel, and their children, living at Jerusalem, prostrated themselves before the temple and put ashes on their heads and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.” (Judith 4,11). Moreover, Judith, before undertaking the difficult task of freeing Betulia, “fell upon her face, and put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing; and at the very time when that evening’s incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord” (Judith 9, 1). In the New Testament, then, Jesus himself, speaking of the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, says that they would deserve the same end of Tire and Sidon, if they had not done penance with ash and sackcloth (Mt 11, 21).
The “public” penance in the Middle Ages
It is from these pages that the Fathers of the Church, as Saint Cyprian, Saint Ambrose, Saint Girolamo and others, often allude to penance “in cinere et cilicio“. Between the V and the VI century when the Church instituted the “public penance”, chose the ash and the sackcloth to indicate the punishment of those who had committed grave and well-known sins. The period of the canonical penance started on Wednesday, the first day of Lent and ended on Holy Thursday. In the Rome of the VII century, forty days before Easter, penitents used to go to the priests, confess their sins and, if it was the case, they would receive a sackcloth impregnated with ash. They remained excluded from the church, with the precept to retreat in some abbey to make penance.
The blessing of ashes
The first form of blessing of the ashes dates back to the XI century. The rite to impose them on the head of the penitents, symbolic gesture that refers to the biblical tradition, rapidly spread throughout Europe. Initially the ashes were deposited on the head of men, while a cross was made on the forehead of the women. Furthermore, the gesture was reserved only to penitents. Then, when public penance was abolished, the rite was extended to all the faithful to bring to mind the common mortal destiny caused by the original sin.
The “stationes” romane
In Rome, the capital of the Empire and the papal see, from the V century, develops the tradition of Lenten “stationes”: the faithful, every day, gather and staged at one of the many “memories” of the Martyrs, which constitute the foundations of the Church of Rome. Holy Mass was celebrated in the Basilicas where the relics were exposed, preceded by a procession during which the faithful would sing the Litanies of the Saints. In this way are remembered those who have witnessed Christ with their blood.
The first official historical news, recorded in the “Liber Pontificalis“, dates back to Pope Hilary (461-468). It is written that the Pope gave to the Church of Rome a series of sacred vases to use in the churches were the stationes took place. This practice was then widespread throughout Europe and North Africa. In the liturgical calendars that do not follow the Roman Martyrology were explicitly remember the stational churches of the Urbe, for feeling in full communion with the Pope. A first reorganization of the stationes occurred, according to the tradition, with Gregorio Magno.
The reform of Gregorio Magno
The Pope went in the church close to the stational one. There the faithful would pray, then the procession would start and, accompanied by the singing of the litanies of the saints, would reach the stational church where they would attend a prayer vigil, subsequently replaced by the Eucharistic celebration. This happened up at the Avignon exile. In 1870, the stationes did not take place anymore, due to the surges that led to the unification of Italy and to the taking of Rome. We need to wait for the beginning of the XX century to see the roman stationes reborn, thanks to Mgr. Carlo Respighi, that from 1931 to 1947 supported and encouraged this tradition. Paul VI was the first Pope to resume the use of presiding the first “statio“, the one that traditionally takes place in the basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.
Santa Sabina, the “statio” of the Pope
The choice of starting precisely from this particular Church is probably due to the fact that once the procession started from the church of Santa Anastasia, near the Circus Maximus, and therefore the ascent to the Aventino symbolized the journey of purification of the soul towards spiritual perfection. Santa Sabina has not always been the first “statio”. In fact, up to a certain age Lent would start on a Sunday and on this day the processions would always start from the major basilicas. Recently, the Pope has not always celebrated the mass of ash at Santa Sabina. It did not happen in 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI renounced to his ministry. The one of Wednesday was his last public celebration as Supreme Pontiff. It was therefore decided to celebrate it in Saint Peter, in order to allow more faithful to participate. And it did not happen in 2016, when Pope Francis presided the Eucharistic liturgy in the Vatican Basilica, because in front of the baldachin of Bernini were exposed the mortal remains of the two Saints “icons” of the Jubilee of mercy: S. Pio of Pietrelcina and S. Leopoldo Mandic.