Here comes Ash Wednesday again! You should already be planning what your Lenten discipline will be. Don’t bite off more than you can chew in this time of fasting and penance, but don’t be too easy on yourselves either. Mind, at the very least, Holy Church’s laws about fasting and abstinence.

This season of Lent is too important simply to cruise through what our ancient forebears called the sacramentum quadragesimale (ie pertaining to the 40 days). After all, we begin Lent with the severe symbol of ashes. Not exactly daisies and kittens.

Another ancient description for Lent’s observance, still found in our liturgical prayers, is exercitia, which involves ongoing, repeated efforts for the sake of becoming good at something. Lent isn’t just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It’s a continuum that expands into mystery.

Speaking of ashes, here is one of the prayers for their blessing in the traditional form of the Roman Rite.

Let us pray. O God, You Who are moved by our acts of humility and appeased by our works of penance, turn Your ear lovingly to our prayers, and by the ashes sprinkled upon the heads of Your servants mercifully pour forth upon them the grace of Your blessing, fill them with the spirit of repentance and truly grant what they ask for in the right way; and may whatever You grant remain fixed and unchanged always. Through Christ our Lord.

This prayer refers to the “sprinkling” (aspersio) of ashes. In some places ashes are smeared upon the forehead in the form of a cross. In other places, they are sprinkled. There is a tradition of putting the ashes on the tonsure (from the Latin tondeo, “to shear”) of a priest or religious. Of old, the clerical state began with the symbolic shearing, tonsure, of his hair and vesting in the surplice. The traditional prayer, which echoes St Paul (Ephesians 4:24) for putting on a surplice, a development of the alb and hence a “baptismal garment”, is: “Invest me, O Lord, as a new man, who was created by God in justice and the holiness of truth. Amen.”

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