Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent for the Latin Rite Church. It is a very predominate and visible tradition that includes the application of ashes to the foreheads of the people participating. The history of ashes as a sign of repentance can be seen over and over in the Bible. As we recently reflected on during Bautha, the Ninevites wore ashes and sack cloth after heeding the warning of Jonah.
So why doesn’t the Chaldean Church share this start of Lent?
The simple answer is that it is not a part of our tradition. It would be just as relevant to ask a member of the Latin Rite why they do not join Chaldeans during Bautha.
The difference is that the Latin Rite is very predominate, and is considered to be the ‘norm’ here in the United States. Some members of the Latin Rite don’t even know that other traditions exist. One result of being in the presence of such a dominating part of the church is that the minority traditions can become deeply influenced by the majority. This is known as Latinization. Pope Benedict XVI was especially against Latinization and encouraged each rite to maintain their traditions. It is very important for Chaldeans to understand their traditions as valid, important, relevant, and as equally Catholic as other traditions.
Christianity was brought to what is now Iraq in the first century by St. Thomas the Apostle. Ash Wednesday is not thought to have become a tradition until around the eighth century. As siblings can live in and be influenced by, different parts of the world, so can the different traditions of the Catholic Church thrive and develop in different cultures, while maintaining the umbrella rules and membership of their family.
Although the use of ashes as a sign of repentance is found throughout history, there is beauty in starting the great fast without this visible sign. In Matthew 6:16-18, Christ instructs us: ‘When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ As Chaldeans we have the opportunity to start Lent without the outward sign of ashes, but with the inward repentance and fasting our tradition gives us. Let us take advantage of this, and not complain of our fast or make it unnecessarily known so that our praise comes only from God our Father.