From ancient Hebrew tradition, people marked their sorrow and repentance by putting on sackcloth and smearing their face with ashes. They were seen as a public display of humility – of rejecting all that society found attractive or valuable. The wearing of ashes became a sign to others that you not only felt sorrow in your heart, but wanted to be held publicly accountable for one’s sins.READ MORE
The scapular, which derives its name from scapulae, the Latin word for “shoulders,” was originally a long, rectangular apron which hung from the shoulders (rather than being tied at the waste). This garment had the practical function of protecting the monks’ habits from the dirt and grime of their daily work, but over time became a visual symbol of their devotion and piety.READ MORE
Most simply, a crucifix is a cross that has the body of Jesus depicted on it. Both the cross as symbol and the crucifix have their origins in the 4th century. Prior to the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christianity was illegal, and Christians had to use a variety of secret symbols or letters to communicate with one another, because to openly wear or carry a cross or image of Jesus was to invite arrest or even execution.READ MORE
Many Catholics in virtually every liturgical context prefer to sit in the back of the church. People have many reasons for doing so. Some are devotional: it can be a sign of humility, or sometimes people sit near an image or statue to which they are particularly devoted. Sometimes its practical – people who have mobility issues, or who want to avoid the direct air conditioning, or think it’s too loud in front or simply arrive late to Mass.READ MORE
This phrase comes in the context of the epiclesis, which is the part of the Eucharistic Prayer which calls down the Holy Spirit to initiate the process of transubstantiation – that is, transforming the simple gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.READ MORE
From the earliest days of the Church, January 1st has been set aside as a feast day, but we haven’t always agreed on what we’re celebrating. For all major feasts, the Church celebrates the “octave” – the eight days or full week after the holy day itself. January 1st completes the octave of Christmas, and was initially celebrated for this reason alone.
During the 4th century, the role of Mary in process of salvation was hotly debated. At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), the title Theotokos, or “Bearer of God” was agreed upon, which both affirms Mary’s unique dignity among women, while distinguishing that she herself is not divine. To proclaim this theological truth, the Church created a special feast day for Mary, Mother of God on January 1st. By the 7th century, however, other Marian feasts, especially the Annunciation (March 25th) and the Assumption (August 15th), surpassed the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in popularity, and gradually the feast day fell out of favor.READ MORE
Like many parts of our liturgical tradition, the washing of hands has its roots in Jewish temple tradition, but also has a practical function. In Jewish custom, the priests would ritually wash themselves before offering sacrifice at the temple as prescribed in the Torah (Ex 30:19). This was to symbolize the need to come before the Lord with pure intent on behalf of the people. This tradition was incorporated into the Christian Eucharistic rite from the earliest centuries.
Over time, however, the washing of hands took on a practical function as well. In the Middle Ages, at the time of the offertory, most people didn’t donate coins. Instead, they gave what they had: eggs, wheat, wool, vegetables, or other products of the land. The priest would receive these gifts on behalf of the Church – but in doing so, would be handling the raw produce. So the washing hands became an essential need before going to handle the sacred species.READ MORE
The Advent wreath has a rather mysterious origin. The tradition has taken many different forms over the years. The ring of lights originates in northern Europe, and likely began with the simple need to light the family dinner table during the long nights of winter. In Scandinavia, they had the tradition of arranging candles in a wheel, representing the changing of seasons from one year to the next. Separately, the tradition of wreath-making goes back to pre-Christian Greece and Rome, where circles of leaves and flowers were used to crown the victors in competitions and brides on their wedding day.READ MORE