Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feria Quarta Cinerum

Fat Tuesday brings with it several customs, which survive to varying degrees in Christian lands. The name, Fat Tuesday, or its equivalent in any number of languages, connotes one aspect of this day. That is, it is the culmination of the Carnival season, in which we enjoy, sometimes in a very festive manner, the pleasures of life, such as sweets, and yes, meat itself, which traditionally are given up during Lent (the Lenten fast has taken different forms, and perhaps I will offer a word or two on that topic later). Another name for this day offers a clue to a very different aspect of this day, namely, Shrove Tuesday. For it is a traditional day to confess one's sins to the priest, and seek absolution, as a fitting way to begin the spiritual journey of Lent. I would like to offer a word here, however, on a Fat Tuesday custom in my house which is perhaps less known than the above two. On this day the palm branch, which has adorned our living room crucifix since last Palm Sunday, is taken down.

Many Lutheran pastors these days practice the blessing and giving out of palm branches on Palm Sunday, which is a very good thing. Some of those pastors also encourage their people to take those palm branches home, and to put them up in a prominent place, such as a "family altar," or on the wall behind a crucifix, and to let it aid prayer and devotion in the home. That also is a very good thing. The palm branch is rich in Christian meaning, which I cannot begin to fully cover here and now, though perhaps I might dwell on it a bit more when Palm Sunday comes around. I will just say that one of the things I personally love about the palm branch is that it reminds me of the dynamic, organic liveliness of the mystical Body of Christ, especially when I place it behind the crucifix, as you see it pictured here. For it makes me think of the cross itself as the Tree of Life of paradise. For Christ, the Blessed Man, shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth his fruit in due season. Many parishes also practice the blessing and imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The Wednesday after Quinquagesima, known as Feria Quarta Cinerum, or Dies Cinerum, the day of ashes, is named in this way because of the tradition of beginning the forty days of the Lenten fast with a very visible sign of our penitence. Ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. Now the part I rarely hear pastors explain is the connection between these ashes and the palms from Palm Sunday.

I would like to make a suggestion to any pastors who might see this, though it is surely too late to implement it this year. That is, when the people are given the blessed palms on Palm Sunday, and encouraged to make reverent use of them in their personal devotional life, it would be very fitting to also encourage them to bring those palm branches back to church on Fat Tuesday (this will be convenient if they come to the daily Mass), or as early as the Sunday of Quinquagesima. Then, when the pastor has gathered these now dry palm branches, he can reverently burn them, and from them make the ashes that he will use on Ash Wednesday.

Yes, the pastor can simply buy ashes from a church supply company. And I don't condemn those who do so. But making them at the church, out of the palm branches used in the parish during the previous year, can be a very meaningful custom for the people of the Church. First, blessed objects should never be simply tossed in the garbage. When they have served their purpose, or have become unusable, holy objects ought to be reverently disposed, preferably by being burned, or buried. A custom like what I am recommending would take care of this (the problem of how to reverently dispose of the blessed palms of the parish) in one convenient action. Second, it would tie the Church Year together more fully in the minds of the people. It would visibly connect for them the symbolism of the palm branches of Christ our King and the ashes of sin and mortality, which He took upon Himself for us.

A final note. As we get set to begin this Lenten season, dear friends, I hope you will have, and take, the opportunity to go to Mass often, to hear the Gospel, and be renewed, nourished, and refreshed in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this life by the One Who is the Bread from heaven, and the Bread of Angels.


Bryce P Wandrey said...

It was the custom at my Lutheran congregation in NC that one of the ladies would burn the palm branches from the year before. It was an excellent tradition, even more so because I did not myself have to laboriously burn the branches. But there is indeed something about getting one of those hard bits that didn't burn all the way down crushed into your forehead. If all else it made you wince a little and go back to your pew wondering, "Maybe I won't let them put ashes on my forehead next year." At least that is always how I envisioned it. :)

I have changed my practice in how long I keep the ashes on my forehead after the service. I used to keep them on until bedtime as a way of witnessing to the Christian faith (or something like that). Now I take Matthew's words quite literally from chapter 6 and wipe the ash off as soon as the service is over.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

I have actually put together some brief comments on this latter aspect of Ash Wednesday. If you are interested, or if your readers are interested, they can be found here.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and the link. It's funny to see you bring up the topic of how long you keep the ashes on your forehead, because I have been thinking lately of just that question, and I am thinking of maybe posting my thoughts on it as a separate post here later. I respect your thinking on the matter, but I must admit the conclusion to which I have come is the exact opposite. More to come.