Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi ("If you were in Rome, live as the Romans do; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there").It is generally very good advice, but one that - rather strangely given their fondness for the line - Americans do not follow.
On Ash Wednesday, I had been looking forward to receiving ashes on the crown of my head - as they do here in Rome. Instead, the Americans distributed ashes in the American way by imposing them on the forehead.
The Roman Missal simply says that, after the blessing of the ashes, "the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him," but it does not say in what manner he does so.
In the first centuries of the Church, those who received ashes were public penitents, who were cast out of the church from Ash Wednesday - after having received the ashes - until Holy Thursday, when they confessed their sins and were admitted to Holy Communion. By the twelfth century, however, the reception of ashes had become more widespread - more "popular," if you will - and even the Pope received ashes on his head on Ash Wednesday, but not quite in the manner we might expect. As Father Edward McNamara, L.C. explains:
When the custom arose of imposing ashes on everyone's forehead I do not know, but I do prefer the reception of ashes on the crown of the head for the reason given by Father McNamara.Initially, men received ashes sprinkled upon the crown of the head, while the ashes were imposed upon women by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. This difference probably stems from the simple fact that women were obliged to keep their heads covered in church.
Today, the mode of imposing ashes varies from country to country according to custom. In most English-speaking countries water is added to the ashes to form a paste which is imposed by making a sign of the cross on the forehead. Many Catholics leave the mark of the ashes unwashed during the day as an outward testimony of their faith.
In much of Italy and in some other Romance-language countries, water is not added to the ashes. Rather, the ashes are imposed by making a sign of the cross above the crown of the head as the ashes fall upon the hair. This mode has the advantage of capturing better the idea of ashes as dust but does not leave a visible sign that can last during the day, except upon those who happen to be bald.
It is, to be sure, a poignant reminder, one that brings to mind the reality of the Last Day. When, at last, "the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him" (Matthew 25:31), "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). For this reason, the ashes which we have recently received are both a token of our mortality and a continual summons to do penance.
If we heed the call of these ashes, the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled in us: "Your dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy" (Isaiah 26:19)!
At the same time, though, sprinkling ashes on top of the head also avoids the striking contrast between the imposition of ashes on the forehead and Jesus' admonition that we hear on Ash Wednesday: "But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you" (Matthew 6:17-18).
Certainly public displays of penance can be found throughout the Old Testament and even within the New Testament. Public penitence is spiritually enriching, just, and something of which we may need more in our day. The choice of that particular passage from the Gospels does not seem to "mesh" well, if you will, with our normal practice (though, to be sure, ashes may be sprinkled on the head in the U.S.).
Ashes imposes on the forehead and warn throughout the day can also serve as a call to repentance for those who seem them on us, but it can also become something of a status symbol of which we can be proud, which seems a much clear contradiction to the purpose of Lent. It may be time to reconsider where we place the ashes.