Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Ash Wednesday


See Lent Overview first for general Lenten traditions, readings, and practices

In Genesis 3:19 we hear God tell us "for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return," but nowadays, when someone dies, they are rushed from deathbed to funeral home to be embalmed and to be worked over by a make-up artist so that that "dusty reality" is hidden from us. Their deaths are spoken of as almost an embarrassment; "he passed," they say, or "he is no longer with us." These comforting but sterile luxuries weren't an option in the past when plagues felled so many people that there weren't enough survivors to bury them, when bodies had to be stored all winter until the ground was soft enough to dig, when most of the children a woman bore died before they were able to grow up. In our culture, with our medicines and "funeral sciences," we are afraid to look at death, and we are a poorer people because of it. No matter how long science can prolong life, no matter how much embalming fluid is pumped into a corpse, nature will have her way. This is Truth. And when nature has her way, we can either rest in the knowledge that the ultimate Victor is Christ, Our Lord, Who walked out of His tomb 2,000 years ago and offers resurrection to us, or we can believe that decay is all that is left. This is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is the day for being reminded of and contemplating our mortality, of which Ecclesiasticus 1 reminds us:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...

When a new Pope processes to St. Peter's Basilica to offer his first Mass as Pope, the procession stops three times and, at each stop, a piece of flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the words, "Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi" ("Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world"), to remind him not only that he is a mere man, but as a man, a mere mortal whose end is like the end of all other men. The things of this world are transient, and Christians must always keep one eye on the world to come.

Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes today: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our Western culture now desperately tries to euphemize away, and that we are radically dependent on -- solely dependent on -- Jesus Christ to overcome this fate.

They are like a yearly contemplation of the tombstone inscribed with:

Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.

While death should, of course, be avoided as the evil it is, we should accept the reality of it with the attitude behind the words attributed to the great Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse: "It is a good day to die" ("Hoka hey"). Death should not be feared in itself; what should be approached with trepidation is the judgment that follows -- not because God is a malicious Father who wants to inflict pain, but because He is as just as He is merciful. We need to repent, accept the reality of death, and not only consider our judgment, but be ready for it.

The Blessing and Disposition of the Ashes

The ashes are made by the burning of palms from last year's Palm Sunday -- palms that were waved in victory and praise. That the ashes are made from burnt palms shows us the link between victory, and penance and mortification which ashes have always symbolized:

Job 42:6
Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.

Before the Mass, the blessing of the ashes begins with an antiphon and a verse of a psalm begging God's grace and mercy. Then come four prayers which express what the ashes symbolize:

1. To be a spiritual help for all who confess their sins.

2. To secure pardon of sins for those who receive the ashes.

3. To give us the spirit of contrition.

4. To give us the grace and strength to do penance.

After the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water and incenses them, he puts some on his own forehead or the crown of the head, and then imposes the ashes on the people. In Latin countries, such as Italy, this is done by sprinkling the ashes over the congregants. In other places, including almost all of the English-speaking world, this means that he will smear the ashes on the foreheads or crowns of those present, the head being the seat of pride. He places the ashes in the shape of a Cross to remind us of our hope, and as he does so, he says the words of Genesis 3:

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

We make no response to these words; we simply return to our pews.

Following the disposition of the ashes come two Antiphons and a Response. Then the priest says another prayer for protection in the coming combat, and begins the Mass.

After we leave the church, we leave the ashes on our foreheads until they wear off naturally from the course of the day's activities. They are a public witness to those things our society does not wish to embrace: the reality of death, penance for sin, and the hope of resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Just so you know, non-Catholics are able to receive ashes, so if a non-Catholic friend accompanies you to Mass today, he can go with you to get "smudged."


In places where palms can't be found for use on Palm Sunday, it is often the custom for Ash Wednesday to bring pussy willow branches inside and place them in vases of water -- in the same way that cherry branches are brought in on the Feast of St. Barbara -- so the catkins will bud and stay fresh for use in place of palms on the Sunday before Easter. Even where palms are available, this is a lovely custom that reminds us of where the Season of Lent is headed...

Because today begins the Lenten fast, a ritual is made in some places of saying farewell to Carnival. All over Spain, this custom has -- paradoxically, given the vast amounts of fish eaten during Lent -- come to include the burial of the sardine -- "Entierro de la Sardina." A mock funeral is held with "mourners," dressed in black and dramatically "weeping," forming a procession through the streets behind a coffin carrying a poor little fish. This sardine can be real or an effigy, life-sized or large, but once at its grave, it is ceremoniously buried amid great "lamentations." This sort of ceremony is held in other places on Holy Saturday, when, for example, in Poland, a herring is buried to mark the end of the Lenten fast -- and the end of endless fish dinners!

In many places in Italy, Lent is personified by the effigy of an old woman that is displayed during this time, and then burned at the stake (sometimes after a "trial") at the end of the season. One such custom is that of hanging the effigy from a rope between two balconies all throughout the Lenten season, and attaching to it a bottle of wine, an orange, and six cookies -- one of which is removed on each of the six Sundays of Lent until no more remain. Such a custom serves as a way to mark the time 'til Easter, in the same way that Advent calendars do for Christmas.

A family could get very imaginative here and think of other ways to count down the days of penance. One could have a system of counting down the forty-six days of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, inclusive), the six Sundays of Lent, or what not. Or one could simply hang a little "Lent calendar" (pdf) on the fridge and let the children place a sticker on each day as it ends. Another clever way of counting down the penitential days to Easter is to have the children make a paper chain of forty links. On each link, have them write down an act of kindness, penance, or prayer that they can reasonably do. On each day of Lent (Sundays don't count!), have them tear off a chain and perform the act written on it. Counting the remaining links will let them know how many more days of penance there will be. If you would prefer to  know how many actual calendar days are left until Lent is over, you would make 46 links. You could insert a different-colored link to represent Sundays (i.e., the first four links would be one color, and the 5th link would be differently colored to represent the first Sunday of Lent. From there on out, every 7th link -- six links in total -- would match the 5th link in color).

Most importantly, today is a day of fasting and abstinence, a day to recall the most profound truths of our existence. During the day today (everyday, actually), meditate on the fact of your mortality -- what it means, and how to avoid eternal death by believing, repenting, and obeying the Father. Consider the image of a sparrow in Winter used by the Venerable Bede (d. 735) in the thirteenth chapter of the second book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede attributes the following words to one of King Edwin's men who was trying to convince the King to listen to the Gospel that was being preached:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

For a blast of reality from pop culture, we have music as disparate as William Shatner's "You're Gonna Die" (MP3), Black Label Society's "Life, Birth, Blood, Doom," this offering from the great Johnny Cash, whom, it seems, everyone loves, and lots more:

On a more classical note, there is Thomas Tallis's "Lamentations of Jeremiah":

And now, a few readings for you to consider: the poem "His Meditation Upon Death" by Robert Herrick (A.D. 1591-1674) and Thomas á Kempis's "Meditation on Death" from his "The Imitation of Christ."


His Meditation Upon Death
by Robert Herrick

Be those few hours, which I have yet to spend,
Blest with the meditation of my end :
Though they be few in number, I'm content :
If otherwise, I stand indifferent.
Nor makes it matter Nestor's years to tell,
If man lives long, and if he live not well.
A multitude of days still heaped on,
Seldom brings order, but confusion.
Might I make choice, long life should be withstood;
Nor would I care how short it were, if good :
Which to effect, let ev'ry passing-bell
Possess my thoughts, “next comes my doleful knell”;

And when the night persuades me to my bed,
I'll think I'm going to be buried.
So shall the blankets which come over me
Present those turfs which once must cover me :
And with as firm behaviour I will meet
The sheet I sleep in as my winding-sheet.
When sleep shall bathe his body in mine eyes,
I will believe that then my body dies :
And if I chance to wake and rise thereon,
I'll have in mind my resurrection
Which must produce me to that General Doom,
To which the peasant, so the prince, must come,
To hear the Judge give sentence on the throne,
Without the least hope of affection.
Tears, at that day, shall make but weak defence,
When hell and horror fright the conscience.
Let me, though late, yet at the last, begin
To shun the least temptation to a sin;
Though to be tempted be no sin, until
Man to th' alluring object gives his will.
Such let my life assure me, when my breath
Goes thieving from me, I am safe in death;
Which is the height of comfort : when I fall,
I rise triumphant in my funeral.

Meditation on Death
Chapter 23 of "The Imitation of Christ"
By Thomas á Kempis (d. A.D. 1471)

Very soon the end of your life will be at hand: consider, therefore, the state of your soul. Today a man is here; tomorrow he is gone.(I Machabees 2:63) And when he is out of sight, he is soon out of mind. Oh, how dull and hard is the heart of man, which thinks only of the present, and does not provide against the future! You should order your every deed and thought, as though today were the day of your death. Had you a good conscience, death would hold no terrors for you; (Luke 12:37) even so, it were better to avoid sin than to escape death. (Wisdom 4:16) If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you better prepared? (Matthew 24:44) Tomorrow is uncertain; and how can you be sure of tomorrow? Of what use is a long life, if we amend so little? Alas, a long life often adds to our sins rather than to our virtue!

Would to God that we might spend a single day really well! Many recount the years since their conversion, but their lives show little sign of improvement. If it is dreadful to die, it is perhaps more dangerous to live long. Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares himself to die. If you have ever seen anyone die, remember that you, too, must travel the same road.(Hebrews 9:27)

Each morning remember that you may not live until evening; and in the evening, do not presume to promise yourself another day. Be ready at all times, (Luke 21:36) and so live that death may never find you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly; for at an hour that we do not know the Son of Man will come. (Matthew 24:44) When your last hour strikes, you will begin to think very differently of your past life, and grieve deeply that you have been so careless and remiss.

Happy and wise is he who endeavours to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death. For these things will afford us sure hope of a happy death; perfect contempt of the world; fervent desire to grow in holiness; love of discipline; the practice of penance; ready obedience; self-denial; the bearing of every trial for the love of Christ. While you enjoy health, you can do much good; but when sickness comes, little can be done. Few are made better by sickness, and those who make frequent pilgrimages seldom acquire holiness by so doing.

Do not rely on friends and neighbours, and do not delay the salvation of your soul to some future date, for men will forget you sooner than you think. It is better to make timely provision and to acquire merit in this life, than to depend on the help of others. And if you have no care for your own soul, who will have care for you in time to come? The present time is most precious; now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) It is sad that you do not employ your time better, when you may win eternal life hereafter. The time will come when you will long for one day or one hour in which to amend; and who knows whether it will be granted?

Dear soul, from what peril and fear you could free yourself, if you lived in holy fear, mindful of your death. Apply yourself so to live now, that at the hour of death, you may be glad and unafraid. Learn now to die to the world, that you may begin to live with Christ. (Romans 6:8) Learn now to despise ail earthly things, that you may go freely to Christ. Discipline your body now by penance, that you may enjoy a sure hope of salvation.

Foolish man, how can you promise yourself a long life, when you are not certain of a single day? (Luke 12:20) How many have deceived themselves in this way, and been snatched unexpectedly from life! You have often heard how this man was slain by the sword; another drowned; how another fell from a high place and broke his neck; how another died at table how another met his end in play. One perishes by fire, another by the sword, another from disease, another at the hands of robbers. Death is the end of all men (Ecclesiasticus 7:2) and the life of man passes away suddenly as a shadow.(Psalm 38:7; 143:4)

Who will remember you when you are dead? Who will pray for you? Act now, dear soul; do all you can; for you know neither the hour of your death, nor your state after death. While you have time, gather the riches of everlasting life. (Luke 12:33; Galatians 6:8) Think only of your salvation, and care only for the things of God. Make friends now, by honouring the Saints of God and by following their example, that when this life is over, they may welcome you to your eternal home.(Luke 16:9)

Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth, (I Peter 2:11), to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.(Hebrews13:14) Daily direct your prayers and longings to Heaven, that at your death your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God.

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