Easter Vigil — 2017

The Easter Vigil is the central liturgy of the Church’s year. It is a Mass, with the regular elements of liturgy of the Word, which is what I concentrate in in my posts for Sundays and major feast days, and liturgy of the Eucharist — with presentation of the people’s gifts of bread and wine, and themselves; consecration of the bread and wine, making them the Body and Blood of Jesus; and Holy Communion. But at the Easter Vigil, some secondary parts are expanded into major rites, and the readings are more extensive.
Mass usually begins with a procession and introductory rite leading into the liturgy of the Word. At the Easter Vigil this rite is vastly expanded. First, a fire is lit; a large candle, adorned with various symbols of Christ, is lit from the fire; and the candle is carried in procession to a tall stand in the sanctuary. Meanwhile, the people’s candles are lit with candles lit from the Easter candle. The Easter candle represents the risen Christ, and its flame the light he gives to the world. When the clergy and ministers have arrived in the sanctuary, an ancient chant, called “Exsultet” (“Rejoice”) from its opening word in Latin, proclaims the praise of the candle as representing Jesus’ work of our salvation.
Normally, the liturgy of the Word consists of three readings, with a responsorial psalm after the first and an acclamation before the gospel. At the Vigil, there are seven Old Testament readings before the (non-gospel) New Testament reading, acclamation, and gospel. Not all seven O.T. readings are required to be read, but Exodus 14:15-15:1, which tells of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, is required. Not only does, it remind us of Passover, with the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb (a type of Christ), which immediately preceded the Exodus, but it also foreshadows baptism, which liberates us from slavery to sin by our passage through the water.

The first reading is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2-2. God creates the universe and it is very good. In Jesus, God recreates humanity, making it very, very good, and ultimately he will recreate the universe — a new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation.

Second is Genesis 22:1-18, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. At the end, God stops Abraham from killing his son, but God did not spare his own son in order to reconcile humanity to himself.Third is the reading from Exodus.

Next is Isaiah 54:5-13, in which God presents himself as the redeemer of Israel, promising reconciliation, “enduring love,” glory, and peace. We see Jesus as the one who brings these about, beginning in time, and fulfilled in eternity.

The fifth reading is also from Isaiah — 55:1-11. There is a promise of abundance. Gentiles will come to the Lord. God is forgiving, and his word — Jesus, in our understanding — sent to the earth, will accomplish his mission.

The sixth reading is Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4. God, the creator of the stars that rejoice before him, calls Israel back to his wisdom, his peace, which we understand are in Jesus.

Seventh is Ezekiel 35:16-17a, 16-28. Our sinfulness has caused our exile among the nations. For the sake of his own glory God will bring us back to the promised land. He will cleanse us of our sins by sprinkling clean water (baptism) on us and putting his spirit in us, enabling us to live according to his will.

In an ordinary Mass, the first reading is followed by a psalm, and then the second reading. In the Vigil, each of these readings has its psalm, but then there is a prayer recited by the priest before the next reading. It alludes to the preceding reading, asking God to deal kindly with us as indicated by the reading.

 

When the Old Testament readings, with their psalms and prayers are completed, the hymn “Glory to God in the Highest” is sung. This usually concludes the entrance rite, before the liturgy of the Word, so we might expect it to be placed before the first reading, rather than in the middle of the liturgy of the word. I suspect the reason for its current placement is that when Pope Pius XII revised the Vigil into its current form, Sunday Mass had only two readings, epistle and gospel. The Gloria came immediately before the first of the two readings, so the idea was that epistle and gospel were a separate unit and the Gloria should precede them. The Old Testament readings were probably seen as separate, not part of a continuum with the final two readings. At any rate the Gloria is sung, and then the prayer which would normally follow it to conclude the opening rite is said.
The epistle — Romans 6:3-11 — tells us that our baptism is a baptism into the death of Jesus, bringing us newness of life in union with his resurrection. Our baptism is thus also a death to sin.

 

The gospel this year, Year A, is Matthew’s account of the resurrection — Matthew 28:1-10. As the women approach Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning, there is an earthquake and an angel rolls the stone from to stone covering the entrance to the tomb. The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen. They are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus. On their way, the women see Jesus, who gives them the same message for the disciples.

It was only this time hearing that gospel that I realized that Matthew implies that Jesus had already risen before the angel rolled back the stone. Possibly the earthquake was the moment he rose and left the tomb, or possible it had happened earlier, but in any case, Jesus (unlike Lazarus) doesn’t have to wait for the stone to be removed before he can leave the tomb. Just as he can enter the upper room through locked doors, in his glorified body, he leaves the tomb while it is still sealed.

Another point that occurs to me is that the reason for the angel’s message is that it prepares the women for encountering Jesus himself. Without that preparation, they would have been overwhelmed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, but ow they could accept it.

 

It may be expected that the liturgy would focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The heavy additional emphasis on baptism in this liturgy is because in ancient times, the Easter Vigil was the occasion on which people were baptized. This leads to the next difference from normal Sunday Masses. In place of the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which normally follows the gospel, there is a blessing of water for baptisms (or for sprinkling the people if there are no baptisms). Adults are then baptized, and then the people renew their baptismal renunciation of sin and profession of faith, following which they are sprinkled with the water, in commemoration and renewal of their own baptism.

After this, the Mass continues as usual.

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Sunday Scriptures — Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) A, Apr. 9, 2017

The first two readings and responsorial psalm of Palm Sunday are the same every year. The gospel is the Passion Narrative of the gospel being read on Sundays throughout the year. So this year we hear the Passion according to St. Matthew.

 

The first reading — Isaiah 50:4-7 — is the third of four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah. The servant of the Lord undergoes sufferings like those of Jesus, but he has confidence in God that he will ultimately be vindicated.

 

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 22, with verse 2 as the refrain — is quoted by Jesus on the cross. Like the first reading, it tells of one who is being tormented, but concludes with an expression of confidence in being vindicated by God.

 

In the gospel — Matthew 26:14—27:66 — we hear of Jesus fully aware of what is about to happen to him. Although he wishes that it weren’t necessary, he accepts it as the will of his Father. At the Last Supper, he gives the Twelve his body and “[his] blood of the covenant.” “Blood of the covenant is significant because it recalls the blood of the covenant in Exodus 24:8. To ratify God’s covenant with Israel, Moses offers a sacrifice and takes the blood of the animals sacrificed and splashes half of it on the altar and sprinkles the people with the other half, Now Jesus’ sacrifice establishes God’s covenant with his people and brings forgiveness of sins. At Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the people say, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” not realizing that his blood is the blood of the covenant. What they are really saying is, “We accept God’s covenant through the sacrificial offering of Jesus.”

Jesus unflinchingly proclaims his Messiahship and accepts his crucifixion. Others actively seek his death, yield to pressure, betray him (and despair), deny him (and repent), run away, mock him, follow loyally, or come to faith. If we sin, we are yielding, denying, or running away from him, and seeking our own comfort or pleasure. But he will forgive, as he forgave Peter and the other disciples after he rose.

I was at a lecture where someone asked where was Jesus’ mercy when he said of Judas, “better for that man if he had never been born.” The answer is that all of God’s threats are conditional: this is what will happen if you don’t repent and change your ways. When Jesus spoke to Judas, it was a warning and a plea: what you are about to do will turn out very badly for you; don’t go through with it. But even when Judas led the arresting force and gave the sign by kissing him, Jesus called him, “Friend.” He invited him to return to friendship with him. Judas could have repented and been restored to God’s grace, rather than despairing. God’s mercy remained available to him, as it is to all of us.

 

The second reading — Philippians 2:6-11 — also speaks of the sufferings of Jesus, putting them in the context of his divinity. As God he was unable to suffer and die, so he became human in order to die for us. His exaltation shows him as Lord, our Savior, deserving of our reverent and grateful praise.

 

I don’t think I’ll have a chance to write new posts for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but the readings are the same every year, so you might want to check out those from last year in the archive.

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, January 8, 2017

I posted last year about this feast day, and since the Mass is the same every year, I’ll let that post suffice.

 

As I noted then, there are three events to the Epiphany: the adoration of the Magi, which is emphasized in today’s Mass; the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, which gets its own feast day, this year on January 9; and Jesus’ changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, which was the gospel passage read on January 7.

 

Since this is my first post of 2017, I also want to wish a Happy New Year to all!

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 4, Dec. 18, 2016

As we come to the last Sunday before Christmas, the main focus of the readings turns from the return of Christ at the end of time (fully establishing the Messianic Age, the peaceable kingdom) to the birth of the Messiah in time.
The first reading — Isaiah 7:10-14 — is the familiar passage which foretells the birth of the one whose birth means God is with us. In context, Isaiah was reassuring King Ahaz that the attack on Jerusalem by the Arameans and the breakaway kingdom of Israel would not succeed. the predicted birth would probably have been that of Hezekiah — since the birth of Jesus something over 700 years later would not have served as a sign to Ahaz. Still, this prophecy is part of a section of the book which promises the Messiah (in ch. 9). And while the Hebrew speaks of a “young woman” as the mother of Emmanuel in v. 14, in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek translation) the word for “virgin” is used. Thus for Jews of Jesus’ time (and some centuries before) this text was seen as having a meaning beyond the immediate one for Ahaz. We see the virgin birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The responsorial psalm — Ps. 24:1-6, with refrain from verses 7 and 10 — has us reflect on God as creator and the holiness required of one who would enter the temple. We think of Jesus as the king of glory who enters.
In the second reading — Romans 1:1-7 — Paul elaborates the customary salutation of a letter with a reference to Jesus as a descendant of David (hence capable of fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah), followed by a statement of his saving work and of Paul’s apostolic mission.
The gospel — Matthew 1:18-24 — tells of the annunciation to Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he would be the Savior. Matthew explicitly quotes the Emmanuel prophecy of the first reading and says the birth of Jesus fulfills the prophecy.
As we look forward to Christmas, these readings invite us to see the importance of the birth of Jesus, both for the world and for ourselves as individuals. God is with us now and always.

2016/06/29 Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

Like a number of other solemnities, that of Sts. Peter and Paul enjoys two Mass formularies: one for the vigil, in the evening of June 28, and one for the day itself. In both, the first reading is from Acts and tells of a miracle involving Peter; the second is an autobiographical section from the Pauline epistles; and the gospel tells of Jesus conferring authority on Peter.
Vigil Mass: The first reading tells of Peter’s healing, in the name of Jesus, of a crippled beggar at the gate of the temple. This is one example of Peter’s prominence in the early church. If we consider ourselves as entering the world spiritually crippled by our innate sinfulness, the reading suggests that our spiritual healing comes through the Church, of which Peter was appointed head (see the gospels of both Masses) to care for God’s people.

The responsorial psalm — Ps 19: 2-5 with responsory from verse 5 — calls to mind the spread of the gospel through the work of the apostles.
The second reading — Galatians 1:11-20 — was also, except for the last verse, proclaimed on the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time this year. It tells us that Paul received his faith in Jesus by direct revelation from God so that he might proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (just as Peter’s faith in Jesus as Messiah came by revelation, as told in the day Mass gospel).
In the gospel — John 21:15-19 — We hear Peter’s threefold profession of love for Jesus, to which Jesus responds with a threefold command to feed is sheep. We see this as meaning that he is to be responsible for providing the nourishment of the Word of God and of the sacraments to the church. We see this shepherding role as continuing in the papacy. Jesus also predicts his death by martyrdom.
Mass during the Day: In the first reading — Acts 12:1-11 — the miracle is not performed by Peter but for Peter. His is in prison. Just as Jesus was killed at Passover, Herod’s intent is to kill Peter immediately after the celebration. But he has not completed the work God has for him. It is not yet time for the martyrdom predicted in the gospel of the vigil, so God miraculously rescues Peter from the prison.

The responsorial psalm — Ps 34:2-9 with responsory based on verse 8 — reflects on Peter’s rescue from prison.
The second reading — 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18 — brings us to the final stage of Paul’s life. He has completed the work whose beginning was recounted in the second reading of the vigil Mass. He has proclaimed the gospel from Antioch to Rome (and according to some traditions to Spain). Now his rescue will not be from death but through death into the life of heaven.
The gospel — Matthew 13:16-19 — is the familiar account of Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ response. Jesus realizes that it is by revelation that Peter recognizes him as Messiah. This means that he is the one who is to hold the metaphorical keys to the kingdom of heaven: his decisions will be ratified by God. As with the shepherding role assigned in the gospel of the vigil, we understand this power of the keys and foundational position to continue for the Church in Peter’s successors. The two functions are actually in a way the same thing, expressed in different images.
Sts. Peter and Paul are the leading figures in the establishment of the Church through the proclamation of the gospel, and their work is a task continues to the day.

2016/06/03 Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Feast (technically a solemnity) of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has its roots in medieval devotion to the Five Wounds of Jesus Christ — the last of which is the piercing of his heart by the soldier’s lance. The greatest impetus for its becoming a liturgical celebration came from St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who in the 1670’s reported visions of Jesus in which he spoke to her of his Sacred Heart as the fount of his love. Especially since 1856, the devotion has been strongly supported by various Popes.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart is based on the heart as the symbol of love. Thus it is a reminder of God’s love for us, manifest in the Son of God’s taking on of human flesh for the sake of our redemption.
This year’s first reading is Ezekiel 34:11-17. The Lord promises the people that he will bring them back from exile to the promised land. He uses the image of himself as a shepherd gathering his sheep who have been scattered.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 23, with verse 1 as the refrain — expresses our confidence in God as our shepherd who provides for us.
The second reading — Romans 5:5b-11 — tells us of God’s love for us in action: the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for us sinners. God loves us despite our sinfulness and wills to redeem us. As Jesus says, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.
The gospel this year is Luke 15:3-7. Here we return to the shepherd imagery. The shepherd seeks out and brings home the lost sheep. As in the passage from Ezekiel, the action is that of the shepherd. The scattered sheep of Ezekiel and the lost sheep of Jesus do not find their way home on their own: the shepherd finds them and brings them back. These passages assure us of what St. Paul tells us directly: God’s love is directed to each of us; none of us is outside his love.

Solemnity of the Ascension, May 5, 2016

In many places, the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is transferred to the following Sunday. Where I live, however, it is still observed on the Thursday of the 6th Week of Eastertide.

The Lectionary provides two options for the second reading: Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28′ 10:19-23. I’ll consider both.

 

The first reading — Acts 1:1-11 — gives us the familiar story of Jesus’ Ascension. Several points are worth noting. The “first book,” mentioned in the beginning, is understood to be the Gospel according to Luke, which also addresses Theophilus at the outset. The resurrected Jesus was seen by the apostles and spoke to them over a period of time. Certain that he was the Messiah, they asked about the common expectation about the Messiah: that he would restore the sovereignty of Israel. Jesus deflects the question, but emphasizes the baptism with the Holy Spirit which they were soon to receive. It would empower them to be his witnesses to the world. Traditions tell of the apostles going to Spain, India, Armenia, Egypt, and points between. The account concludes with two angels promising that Jesus would return.

 

The responsorial psalm — Ps 47: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9, with the refrain from v. 6 — has us view the Ascension as akin to an enthronement with accompanying celebration.

 

The first option for the second reading —Ephesians 1:17-23 — focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in confirming our faith and our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and his return to the Father. Now Jesus is Lord of all, including the Church, which is his body. In other words, the Church takes the place of Jesus in being physically present in the world. It presents us with a cosmic view.

The alternative second reading — Hebrews 9:4-28; 10:19-23 — invites us to think of Jesus as the eternal high priest who won salvation for us by his sacrifice of himself on Calvary. His ascension is the moment when he came bodily to the Father to present that sacrifice. As in Acts, there is a promise of Jesus’ return. For now, we can approach God in worship in union with the Church, thanks to our Baptism (“hearts sprinkled … bodies washed”), which unites us to Jesus in the Church.

 

This year the gospel is from Luke —Lk 24:46-53. Like Acts, it contains words of Jesus indicating the work of the Apostles in spreading the gospel around the world and the power which the apostles would soon receive to fulfill that mission. It also speaks of the Ascension itself, placing it in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem. Strikingly, there is no indication of a prolonged stay between the Resurrection and the Ascension. The gospel seems to say that the Ascension took place as the final event of the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson sees the promise of power from on high and the Ascension as two moments in a single process, while the account in Acts elaborates on the process.

 

The situation of the Church today, and of us, its members, is essentially the same as that of the Apostles after the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. We await the return of Jesus. Meanwhile, we have the task of witnessing to him around the world.

Easter Sunday — 2016

Regrettably, I didn’t have time to write a post about the Easter Vigil celebrated on Saturday evening. It is the central liturgy of the whole year. I hope I’ll be able to write something in time for next year’s vigil. But now, as the Sunday comes to a close, hear are some thoughts about the scriptures for the Mass for daytime Sunday.

 

 

The first reading — Acts 10:34a, 37-43 — is taken from a sermon by Peter in the house of a gentile centurion named Cornelius. Up to this point, Jesus’ followers were all Jews. But now a series of visions had caused Cornelius to send for Peter and Peter to accept Cornelius’ request that Peter visit him. Peter was speaking to a number of Cornelius’ friends and relatives. He gives a synopsis of Jesus’ ministry and then testifies to his death and resurrection and to his status as judge of the living and dead and to the forgiveness of sins which comes to believers through Jesus. Following this passage, we are told that the Holy Spirit fell on those listening to Peter, and ordered that they be baptized. This definitively marks the admission of uncircumcised gentiles into the Church.

The passage witnesses to us of the belief in the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus already present in the early days of the Church.

 

The responsorial psalm — Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23, with verse 24 as the refrain — contains verses used to support the idea that one rejected by the authorities could be the Messiah: “the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” This was read as a prophecy of Jesus’ Lordship, and t must be God’s doing. The resurrection is a powerful act by God, one which ultimately promises us life. Our response is to recognize the day of the resurrection, and by extension, every Sunday — which is our holy day because it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus — as “the day the Lord has made,” a day for rejoicing.

 

There are alternative second readings.
Colossians 3:1-4 refers to its hearers as having died and having been raised with Christ, which happens in baptism. This sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus has consequences: we should care more about the things of heaven, our ultimate destiny, that about those of this earthly existence.
1 Corinthians 5:6b-8 spells out the consequences more specifically. Using the metaphor of the Jewish Passover rule of removing all yeast from the house in advance of the holy days (so that they would eat only unleavened bread), Paul calls on his hearers to remove malice and wickedness from their lives, which are now a perpetual Passover marked by sincerity and truth, with Christ as the paschal lamb.

 

In Jesus’ time, belief in a resurrection at the end of time was common among Jews other than the Sadducees, but it was not easy for Jesus’ disciples to grasp the concept of a resurrection happening before then. That is why the final verse of the gospel — John 20:1-9 — tells us that “they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” We see a similar incomprehension in the other gospels when Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection. This is the beginning of John’s account of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection. At first, Mary Magdalen seems to suspect tat the empty tomb was the work of grave robbers, but John comes to believe that Jesus was raised. The appearances of Jesus will make it clear to them all.

 

Jesus, our Paschal Lamb is risen and shares his life with us.
Our celebration of the Lord’s resurrection will continue through the fifty days of the Easter Season to Pentecost. as we hear the gospel accounts of his appearances after his resurrection and consider the meaning of our participation in his life.

Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) — 2016

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, as its name indicates, commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and death on the cross. The first reading — Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 — gives the prescriptions for the Israelites’ first Passover, celebrated the night before their exodus from Egypt, with its sacrificial lamb and unleavened bread.

We see the lamb, whose blood protected the Israelites from the the destroying angel, as a prefiguring of Jesus. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he called him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus’ offering of himself, his self-sacrifice, redeems us from our sinfulness. We will be able to leave the Egypt of slavery to sin and ultimately enter the promised land of heaven.

The unleavened bread prefigures the bread of the Lord’s Supper. In John 6, Jesus said that we must eat his body and drink his blood to have life, and he said that the bread he would give us is his flesh. The gospels suggest that the Last Supper was the Passover meal. At it, Jesus fulfills the promise of his flesh and blood by identifying the unleavened bread as his body and the cup of wine as his blood. We believe that at every Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary is made present as it was at the Last Supper. That is why the priest repeats John the Baptist’s words, “Behold the Lamb of God … who takes away the sins of the world.”
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18, with a refrain based on 1 Corinthians 10:16 — we anticipate the next reading and reflect on death and sacrifice.
The second reading —1 Corinthians 11:23-26 — gives us Paul’s account of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. It was written before the gospels, and witnesses to the tradition which informed them. Jesus declares that the bread he shares is his body, that is for them, and the wine is the new covenant in his blood. They are to repeat his action in remembrance of him — proclaiming his death until he returns.
The choice of John 13:1-15 for the gospel may seem surprising: why not one of the synoptics, with their accounts of the institution of the Eucharist? For one thing, we already have the equivalent in the second reading. For another, we have the Feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord (Corpus Christi) to underline the doctrine of the Real Presence. The account of Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples, and commanding them to serve one another, following his example, shows us what the effect of our participation at Mass must be. Jesus didn’t give us his body and blood, sacrificed on Calvary, for their own sake. They are to gives us a life conformed to his life, a life of love for one another and of the service which naturally flows from that love. In the Latin the Church used for centuries, the word for “commandment” that Jesus uses is “mandatum,” which, in an anglicized form, “maundy” gives the title under which this day is often designated: Maundy Thursday.

Christians’ participation in the Body and Blood of the Lord must lead to loving service. I think Pope Francis is re-emphasing this point for us.

Ash Wednesday

The beginning of Lent is generally known in English as Ash Wednesday (which is a good translation of its Latin name: feria quarta in cineres). It takes its name from the custom of putting ashes on the heads of the faithful.
Ashes.  Putting ashes on one’s head or sitting or lying in them (often accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth) was a customary way of expressing grief recorded in the Old Testament. See, for example, 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Jonah 3:6.

Lent began as a time for catechumens’ immediate preparation for baptism at Easter. Soon it also became a time of penitential preparation for the reconciliation of notorious sinners with the Church, which would also take place at Easter. The bishop would put ashes on the heads of the penitents as they began this season.

Over the course of centuries the public reconciliation of penitents morphed into the private reconciliation of sinners. Concurrently, the public penance of sinners in preparation for reconciliation at Easter became the preparation of all (who are all sinners) for Easter; and the ashes of the penitents became available for all as a sign of sorrow for sin.

It is worth noting that with this history and significance of the ashes, wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday does not violate Jesus’ precept in Matthew 6:16-18. The ashes do not say we are fasting; they say we are repentant sinners.
Scriptures. The readings for today’s Mass approach Lent under different aspects. The first reading — Joel 2:12-18 — has a community aspect to it. The Lord calls for the wayward community to engage in a collective act of penance: fasting and assembling (with no exceptions) to pray for mercy. God is sure to be merciful to the people that turns to him in that way. The psalm refrain, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned,” continues the community vision, but the actual verses — Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17 — are the words of an individual penitent. We acknowledge that our personal guilt is an element of the community’s.

The second reading — 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 — looks not at sin itself but at reconciliation with God. Lent is a day of salvation, a time of grace, when we can come to participate in Christ’s divine righteousness because he has taken on our sin, removing the obstacle between us and God.

Finally, in the gospel — Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 — Jesus warns us against the hypocrisy of doing good things just for the sake of winning admiration from others. (The omitted verses are the ones where he gives the Our Father as the model of prayer.) Note that he doesn’t say “If you give alms … pray … fast,” but “When you give alms, pray, fast.” These three things must be part of every Christian’s life, and not just for Lent; but the Church considers them the primary disciplines of Lent. In other words, we are to do them more intensively and more intentionally during Lent. We should give alms more. This can include acts of kindness and supplying the needs of others even beyond things of monetary; we can help by giving of our time and our talents. We should deepen our life of prayer, adding maybe a few minutes of prayer or Bible reading to our daily routine. Fasting is what creates the idea of “giving something up for Lent.” It has value in reasserting that we are in charge of our appetites; it says that we don’t absolutely need these things; it says God is more important than these things which we enjoy; and what we save by not buying the things we give up can and should become part of our almsgiving — the fast isn’t so we can spend on ourselves in some other way.