Can a layman distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday?

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Dear Father, in our parish a layman helped the priest distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday. Is this permitted? Also, has the Church been starting Lent with the imposition of ashes for a long time, or is this something new? Do other faiths have it?

An inmate receives ashes from Sister Michelle Bremer, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in New York in February 2015. Photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz
An inmate receives ashes from Sister Michelle Bremer, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in New York in February 2015. Photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

In answer to your first question, there would seem to be nothing wrong with lay people assisting the priest in the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Even though nothing is said about it in the Roman Missal, the Book of Blessings has a rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes outside of Mass which includes the following indication: “This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon (no. 1659).”

From this it would seem that lay people may assist the priest in the distribution of ashes within Mass as well so as not to prolong the ceremony unduly.

Given that large numbers of people ordinarily attend the Ash Wednesday services and that anyone who wishes to receive the ashes may do so, including young children and others who cannot receive Communion, the distribution of ashes can take a long time and so extra ministers are often needed.

What is more, a lay minister may lead a service of distributing ashes previously blessed by a priest or deacon, for example in taking ashes to the sick or to another group of faithful who have not been able to attend the rite of blessing and distribution within Mass or outside of Mass.

So as a principle lay people can distribute the ashes in certain circumstances.

If lay faithful can be extraordinary ministers of Communion when there is a shortage of ordinary ministers, there would seem to be no reason why they cannot also be ministers of the ashes.

For how long has the Church begun Lent with the imposition of ashes? Ash Wednesday is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which dates to the late eighth century, so the custom goes back at least that far.

One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1020) who writes in his Lives of the Saints: “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

It seems that by the end of the 10th century the custom of the faithful receiving ashes on the first day of Lent was common in Western Europe, although not in Rome. In 1091 Pope Urban II at the Council of Benevento ordered that the custom be extended also to the Church in Rome.

Not long after that the name of the day was referred to in liturgical books as Feria Quarta Cinerum, or Wednesday of Ashes, Ash Wednesday.

The custom of beginning Lent with ashes stems from the practice of people who had committed grave sins beginning their final preparation for absolution at Easter by being sprinkled with ashes and putting on sackcloth on the first day of Lent.

This form of public penance ceased towards the end of the 10th century but a vestige of it remained in the sprinkling of ashes on the heads of all the faithful on Ash Wednesday.

As regards the use of ashes in other faiths, the Eastern Orthodox generally do not use them, since the custom is not part of their tradition.

As we have seen, Ash Wednesday was more of a Western tradition.

Nonetheless, with the creation in 2012 of an Antiochian Orthodox Western Rite Vicariate in the US, some Western Orthodox parishes have begun to observe Ash Wednesday.

The use of ashes among Protestants is varied, with a few denominations observing it.

In more recent times the celebration of Ash Wednesday among Anglicans and Protestants has been on the increase as a gesture of unity with Catholics, spurred on by the ecumenical movement that followed the Second Vatican Council.

It is observed by some Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anabaptists and Reformed congregations.