Pointing at the bulletin letter's date (link) at left will display it's title.
February 3, 2008
Ashes and the Sacrament of Reconciliation
It is a well known fact that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has gone through many changes throughout history. There was a time when people were baptized as adults and consequently their sins were forgives during the reception of this sacrament. The only time they confessed their sins again was on their death bed. There was no other provision for receiving God’s forgiveness. This was not a bad idea. However, if someone died unexpectedly they had not opportunity to become “right” with God.
There was another period of history where the church forgave sins through the practice of bringing people into the Order of Penitents. This was the practice throughout most of the first millennium. Christians who had committed serious sins confessed their sins to the bishop or his representative, ( a priest), and then were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. After completing their penance, they were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the community.
During the time the penitents worked out their penances, they had special places in church and wore special garments to indicate their status. They also used ashes as an indicator of their sinfulness. The penitents were dismissed from the Sunday assembly after the Liturgy of the Word. They were not allowed to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist until they had completed their period of penance.
The reason for the Order of Penitents was initiated by the bishops because the church saw the falling into serious sin after Baptism as an indication that persons had not really been converted before Baptism. Early Church fathers even called Penance a “second Baptism.” It is important to realize that Baptism was seen as a point of conversion in the life of adults. They were mature individuals who were able to understand the purpose of Baptism.
Today, the Sacrament of Reconciliation if celebrated on a more personal note. When Catholics feel that they need to be reconciled with God they avail themselves of the sacrament and confess their sins to a priest in order to be forgiven. This can be done as often as a person feels the need. Fortunately for us, there are no visible signs of sinfulness for the community to see. We are not longer assigned a special place in church nor do we have to wear ashes for months on end. We seek forgiveness and our sins are forgiven on the spot when we are truly sorry.
This being said, we also realize that it is a spiritually healthy practice to remember that we are sinners. Sin always damages our relationship to God and to other human beings. There is a social dimension to sin. Therefore, it is appropriate to perform a socially public act that acknowledges our sinfulness and our desire to make amends for the ill we have caused to others. This is the reason we receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday. With the reception of the ashes we remember that we are sinners and that we need to return to the way of the Gospel. It is a simple yet very meaningful act that ushers in a time of preparation for Conversion.
Lorette P. Nault