This is one of my favorite Ash Wednesday homilies, which I share as we initiate Lent this year. There was a student who took offense at it and stopped worshiping with us. He thought I was advocating that we initiate an Order of Penitents, which is described here in its ancient context. I wasn’t and I think that was clear. And, yet, there was something wonderful and loving – and real – about that, and maybe something genuine about his reaction. It’s important to note that the penitent, the bishop – and probably several others – approached this ordeal with tears. To be honest, I’m surprised by how long this homily is, but I don’t recall anyone leaving the community because of that. May we all allow ourselves to realize the blessings of Lent.
A long time ago, about 2,000 years ago, to be somewhat precise, give or take a few hundred years, early Christians gathered on the day to initiate Lent and among those gathered were people known as penitents.
These people had publicly acknowledged their sin and now they sought to be publicly reconciled with God and with the Church. During the second to fourth centuries, these penitents would arrive on Ash Wednesday barefoot, in drab clothes, and they were instructed to keep their heads down.
There’s an ancient text that describes the ritual that ensued. The bishop would process from his chair with servers carrying a cross and candles, accompanied by the choir and other priests, and they would go to the middle of the church. The penitents would then come to the bishop and, according to the ancient instruction, lie prostrate in prayer before the bishop and the assembly. The instruction adds that the penitents should do all of this “with tears.” The bishop placed ashes on the foreheads of the penitents, saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Do penance that you might have eternal life.”
The bishop then gave the penitents a special garment and placed the garments over their heads one by one, offering assurances of God’s mercy. The penitents would then prostrate themselves on the floor while the entire assembly surrounded them chanting a penitential psalm. Finally the bishop prayed for the penitents and then took their hands, one by one, and led them from the church. When they were all outside, the bishop said to them “with tears”: “Behold you are expelled today from Holy Mother Church because of your sins.”
But, all was not lost. Hardly. He urged them to hold fast to the promise of God’s mercy and to be busy with fasting, prayer, giving alms and doing good works. They were told to return on Holy Thursday and not to presume to attempt entry until then. Finally, the doors were closed and the assembly returned to the celebration of Mass.
It was, as you might imagine, a very intense, dramatic and understandably emotional ritual and ordeal. But, this was not a lurid spectacle, this was not about gossiping or finger-pointing or humiliation. That was a ritual of brutal honesty with obvious indications of encouragement and love.
It was called the Order of Penitents and this ritual died out in the fourth century, not because it was humiliating, not because it was excessive, not because of its obvious emphasis upon sin. Rather, it disappeared for practical reasons — the church was simply getting too big, too many people, too many sinners; communities were becoming too large to properly tend to the needs of their penitents. It also disappeared because the church increasingly came to privatize sin, to acknowledge and confess it in private as a matter between the penitent and God, and the priest.
Primarily the Order of Penitents died away — the sending of people out of the church on Ash Wednesday — because there also came to be a realization that we are all penitents; our sins may be of varying degrees and consequences, but we have all sinned.
I think it’s hard for us to get beyond what our 21st century sensibilities bring to the experience. It’s maybe impossible for us to get beyond what we perceive as the embarrassment, the personal trauma of this ancient ritual of penitents. But it was not that.
First of all, the people were not “called out” on their sin, as a few people in our church presume to do today — identifying certain peoples’ sins and accompanying punishments. The penitents stepped forward on their own, recognizing the seriousness of their offenses, realizing that what they’d done, the lives they were living, were detrimental not just to themselves, but to their entire community with which they shared life and love. To stand before that community, the love and prayer and support of that community — to stand before that community in the presence of God seemed not only sensible but desirable, necessary.
The church may have come to the realization that we are all penitents, that we are all sinners, that we are all in need of healing and mercy. But we might each realize that more profoundly if we experienced something as intense, dramatic and brutally honest as what transpired in ancient churches on Ash Wednesdays of the past.
The closest we come, I think, in any of our rituals to that experience is what we do today, when we are marked with ashes, when we are reminded of our very earthly origins and endings, when a black cross marks the spot where we were claimed for Christ at baptism, when we acknowledge are sin by virtue of an admonition to turn from sin, to be faithful to the gospel. In the ancient Order of Penitents, the door was not closed and then the penitents forgotten for 40 days. Remember the tearful encouragement of the bishop to them to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. Members of the community gathered with them, to help them pray, to help them re-direct their lives, to remind them of God’s love. And members of the community, with more tears to be sure, welcomed the penitents back among them as they gathered to begin the Triduum on Holy Thursday. As we cannot comprehend the humiliation of Lent’s beginning, we cannot begin to understand the joy of Lent’s conclusion.
It’s rather like that for us, the penitents of our day; that we don’t leave here on Ash Wednesday and then just disappear. We are given the same encouragement to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. We gather as a community of penitents every Lord’s Day for Mass to praise God. The community comes together during this season to pray the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. We do all of us this not out of fear or humiliation or regret, but as rituals and actions of repentance, of hope, of faith.
In our shared Lenten journey as penitents, may we realize the healing power of gathering with the people of God and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist on Sunday, may we celebrate the healing grace of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, may we come to the end of Lent, to Triduum, to Holy Thursday, with the realization that we are still penitents, still imperfect, but renewed, refocused and more determined to abide by our answer to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. TL