From a reader…
Peace and good times, Father Z. [Right now, I’d settle for okay times.]
May the blessing and distribution of ashes be done at home in this time of pandemic? Our Archdiocese (in the Philippines) and the Episcopal Commission on Liturgy here is drafting an Ash Wednesday Ritual for the Use at Home for those who cannot participate physically (due to the pandemic). A striking note is that the first prayer in the current Missal is recommended for a layperson (they say, the elder/the father in the household) to pronounce the blessing.
I know, Father, that the most important thing in Lent is we truly be sorry for our sins and a change of heart for God. Yet I’m concerned with how these blessings reserved to priests and deacons be commended to laypersons.
By “current Missal” I think you mean the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum. In fact, the 1962 Misssale is also a “current Missal”. Don’t fall into that trap.
It would be far better were the ashes to be blessed before they are distributed to the lay faithful. In fact… isn’t that what the rites of the Church foresee? Bless them before distribution? That’s how it would be done in church, right?
Instead we have another symptom of the erosion of the concept of “blessing”, which is found even in official liturgical books now: the reduction of constitutive blessings to invocative blessings. Some blessings call God’s grace down upon someone and others constitute the thing, place or person as blessed, in an enduring way, set apart for God.
As a direct response, whatever you do, don’t try to bless the ashes in the manner of a priest, with the sign of the cross over them. I like the idea that the father of a family will bless his family, but I don’t like this confusion of roles. Particularly when the ashes could be blessed by the priest or bishop before distribution.
I fear that this sort of thing reduces an important rite – we are our rites – to a kind of sentimentality.
The first prayer in the Novus Ordo Missale runs like this:
Deum Patrem, fratres carissimi, suppliciter deprecemur, ut hos cineres, quos paenitentiae causa capitibus nostris imponimus, ubertate gratiae suae benedicere dignetur. … Dearest brethren, let us humbly pray that God the Father will the abundance of His grace deign to bless these ashes, which for the sake of penance we put on our heads. [NB: and explicit reference to blessing the ashes]
There is a moment of silence and the priest continues, hands extended:
Deus, qui humiliatione flecteris et satisfactione placaris, aurem tuae pietatis precibus nostris inclina, et super famulos tuos, horum cinerum aspersione contactos, gratiam tuae benedictionis + effunde propitius, ut, quadragesimalem observantiam prosequentes, ad Filii tui paschale mysterium celebrandum purificatis mentibus pervenire mereantur. … O God, who are swayed by an act of humility and are placated by reparation, incline your merciful ear to our prayers, and kindly pour out the grace of your + blessing on your servants, marked by the aspersion of these ashes, so that, pursuing the Lenten observance, they may with purified minds attain to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of your Son.
[NB: This does not bless the ashes. It is an invocative blessing on those who will have received them.]
There follows an optional alternate prayer, which explicitly does bless the ashes.
In the Novus Ordo Missale, there are two prayers, one invocative and an alternate which is constitutive. This is a symptom of the incoherence in some of our liturgical books that follows when some in high places want to eliminate the distinction of constitutive and invocative. We find this in the so-called “Book of Blessings”, in which the prayers bless nothing, but call down blessings on some who, for example, might look at the statue in question. It is an attack on sacramentals, in essence.
When we use the current traditional edition of the Missale Romanum, there are four prayers, all of which must be said.
Contrast with the Novus Ordo invocative version.
[Not my translations:]
O almighty and eternal God, spare those who are penitent, be merciful to those who supplicate Thee; and vouchsafe to send Thy holy Angel from heaven, to bless + and sanctify + these ashes, that they may be a wholesome remedy to all who humbly implore Thy holy name, and accuse themselves as a result of the consciousness of their sins, deploring their crimes before Thy divine clemency, or humbly and earnestly beseeching Thy sovereign mercy : and grant through the invocation of Thy most holy name that all who may be sprinkled with them for the remission of their sins may receive health of body and safety of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
O God, who desirest not the death of sinners, but rather their repentance, look down most graciously upon the frailty of human nature, and in Thy goodness vouchsafe to bless + these ashes which we intend to put upon our heads in token of humility and that we may obtain pardon; that we who know that we are dust, and for the penalty of our guilt must return unto dust, may deserve to obtain of Thy mercy the pardon of all sins, and the rewards promised to penitents. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
O God, who are moved by humiliation, and appeased by satisfaction : incline the ear of Thy goodness to our prayers, and favourably pour forth upon the heads of Thy servants sprinkled with these ashes the grace of Thy blessing, that Thou mayest both fill them with the spirit of compunction, and effectually grant what they have justly prayed for : and ordain that what Thou hast granted may be permanently established and remain inviolate. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty and eternal God, who didst grant the remedy of Thy pardon to the Ninivites doing penance in ashes and sackcloth, mercifully grant that we may so imitate them in our attitude that like them we may obtain forgiveness. Through our Lord. Amen.