“Dear Father, in the scriptures we sometimes read about people putting on “sackcloth and ashes”. What was the meaning of this practice and was it ever used in the Church?”
First, let us look at several passages which mention sackcloth and ashes. In the book of Jonah, when Jonah preached that in forty days the city of Nineveh would be overthrown, “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon 3:5-6).
Similarly, when the prophet Jeremiah passed on God’s message that a people from the north would come to attack Jerusalem, he told the people to “put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jer 6:26).
Jesus himself spoke of the practice: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21).
As is clear in all these cases, sackcloth and ashes were used as a sign of repentance, sometimes to avoid an impending evil. The early Church embraced this Jewish custom, especially in Lent.
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Fr Francis Weiser SJ relates in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs how in Rome, as early as the fourth century, persons who had committed serious public sin and scandal were required to do public penance from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday.
These people, who had confessed their sins shortly before Lent, were presented by the priests to the bishop on Ash Wednesday outside the cathedral. They stood barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, with their heads bowed in humility and contrition. The bishop, assisted by his canons, then assigned to each one particular acts of penance, depending on the gravity of their sins.
After this they entered the cathedral, the bishop leading the first one by the hand and the others following in single file, holding on to the hand of the one in front and behind. Before the altar they all recited the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142), led by the bishop and the clergy.
Then, as each person approached, the bishop laid his hands on him, sprinkled him with holy water, put blessed ashes on his head and invested him with the sackcloth tunic. At the conclusion of the ceremony the penitents were led out of the cathedral and were forbidden to re-enter it until Holy Thursday.
Since this was a period of 40 days it was called “quarantine”, or 40. The word later became accepted into general use to refer to a period of separation from human contact in the case of infectious diseases.
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During this time the penitents would spend Lent apart from their families in a monastery or other suitable place, where they occupied themselves in prayer, manual labour and works of charity.
They had to remain barefoot, they were forbidden to speak with others, they slept on the ground or on a bed of straw and they were not allowed to bathe or cut their hair.
On Holy Thursday the penitents would bathe, shave, cut their hair and put on clean clothes before presenting themselves in the cathedral for the absolution of their sins. After they had been absolved they would attend the Mass of Remission celebrated by the bishop, during which they would receive Holy Communion.
This was the first of three Masses celebrated by the bishop on this day. It was followed by the Mass of the Chrism, in which the holy oils were blessed, and finally in the evening the Mass of the Last Supper, commemorating the institution of the Eucharist.
Since Holy Thursday was not a day of fast, the faithful could eat their customary meals and still receive Communion in the evening Mass. On other days, they had to fast from midnight before receiving Communion.