Day by Day Through Lent

The following is a description of a Lenten ritual that was observed by the Church in the fifth or sixth century. Penitents were “public sinners” who acknowledged their need to repent:

Public penitents are to be expelled from the church on Ash Wednesday. They are to arrive in old clothes, barefoot, keeping their heads down. The bishop, after presiding at the blessing and imposition of ashes on the rest of the community, goes in procession with the cross and candles to the doors of the church. The penitents are then allowed to come forward and prostrate themselves-with tears-before the bishop. The Bishop then places ashes on the heads of each of the penitents, saying: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Do penance that you might have eternal life.”

The bishop then blesses the penitential garments (“that whoever is clothed with these garments and begs for mercy will find forgiveness”) and places the garments on the penitents one by one. During this clothing rite, the bishop announces to each penitent that the mercy of God is found not only in baptism confirmation but also in the ‘medicine of penance.”

The penitents again prostrate themselves on the floor while all present surround and chant the seven penitential psalms and the litany of saints. Finally the bishop prays for the penitents. They then stand up and the bishop speaks to them about how Adam had been thrown out of Paradise and, in the same way, they are now rejected from the church. The bishop then takes one of the penitents by the hand, and the others follow. When the penitents are outside, the bishop says to them with tears; ‘Behold, you are expelled today from the doors of holy mother church because of your sins.” Finally, the bishop admonishes the penitents not to give up on the mercy of the Lord, but to be busy with fasting, prayer, pilgrimages, alms, and other good works. They are told to return on Holy Thursday and not to presume to enter the church until then. The whole assembly then goes back into the church to celebrate the Mass, closing the doors on the penitents.

Makes giving up sweets for Lent seem easy, doesn’t it?

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