Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Because He Had Refused Those Few Ashes"

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which for me is a period of prayer, fasting and repentance. Woe be it unto those who do not repent as the ancient Abbot of Eynsham illustrated (in bold text below) a thousand years ago. First the preface (I did a lot of work typing this so you had better read it),
"On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men's heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God's command 'In toil thou shalt live, and in sweat thou shalt eat thy loaf on earth, until thou return again to the same earth from which thou earnest, because thou art dust, and shalt to dust return.'"
"This is not said of men's souls, but of men's bodies that moulder to dust, and afterwards shall at doomsday, through our Lord's might, all arise from the earth, that were ever alive, like as all trees are always quickened in the Lenten time, which before had been deadened by the winter's chill. 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 in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during our Lenten fast."
"There was a certain foolish man with bishop Ælfstan in Wiltshire, in his household: this man would not go to the ashes on the Wednesday as other men did, who attended at mass; then his companions begged that he would go to the mass-priest, and receive the scared mysteries which they had received. He said, 'I will not." They still prayed him. He said that he would not, and spake strangely in his talk, and said that he would use his wife at the forbidden time. Then they left him so. It befell that the heretic was riding in that week about some errand when the hounds attacked him very fiercely, and he defended himself until his spear shaft stood up before him, and the horse carried him forward so that the spear went right through him, and he fell dying.
He was then buried, and there lay upon him many loads of earth within seven nights, because he had refused those few ashes."
Ælfric, "Lives of the Saints" edited by Rev. Walter W. Skeat, Cambridge-1881 pp263-268 (269-271 in the reader)

Ælfric of Eynsham (Old English: Ælfrīc; Latin: Alfricus, Elphricus) (c. 955 – c. 1010 )

                                                           Eynsham centre


  1. R. Sherman said...
    Well, right then. Lesson's learned:

    1. Go to Church.

    2. Have two spears.

    3. Watch how you ride.


    5:42 PM

  2. Though I'm sure there's a fair amount of medieval hagiography in play here, I can't help but be reminded stone in Christ's parable in Matthew 21:42.
    Far better to humble one's self in the presence of the Divine than be Divinely humbled.

  3. Gotta love the hagiography though, and it does give us some insight as to the style of preaching back then.