Ash Wednesday: God Wills It!

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Lent is a time for confronting evil, especially the evil within us.  Today is Ash Wednesday.  The origins of the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is lost in the mists of Church history.  The first pope to mention Ash Wednesday, although the custom was very old by his time, was Pope Urban II.  At the Council of Clermont in 1095, the same Council at which the Pope issued his world altering call for the First Crusade, the Council handed down this decree (among others):  10-11. No layman shall eat meat after the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday until Easter. No cleric shall eat meat from Quinquagesima Sunday until Easter.

That the first pope to mention Ash Wednesday was the same pope who launched the First Crusade is very appropriate.  Although even many Catholics may not realize this today, from first to last the Crusades were a penitential rite for the remission of sins.  One of the foremost modern historian of the Crusades, Thomas Madden, notes this:

During the past two decades, computer-assisted charter studies have demolished that contrivance. Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Europe is littered with thousands of medieval charters attesting to these sentiments, charters in which these men still speak to us today if we will listen. Of course, they were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had. But the truth is that the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing.

Pope Urban II was clear on this point in calling for the first Crusades when he reminded the chivalry of Europe of their manifold sins and called them to repentance through the Crusade:

What are we saying? Listen and learn! You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant with great pride; you rage against your brothers and cut each other in pieces. This is not the (true) soldiery of Christ which rends asunder the sheepfold of the Redeemer. The Holy Church has reserved a soldiery for herself to help her people, but you debase her wickedly to her hurt. Let us confess the truth, whose heralds we ought to be; truly, you are not holding to the way which leads to life. You, the oppressers of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christian blood — as vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. Verily, this is the worst way, for it is utterly removed from God! if, forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood, or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defence of the Eastern Church. For she it is from whom the joys of your whole salvation have come forth, who poured into your mouths the milk of divine wisdom, who set before you the holy teachings of the Gospels. We say this, brethren, that you may restrain your murderous hands from the destruction of your brothers, and in behalf of your relatives in the faith oppose yourselves to the Gentiles. Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us. But if it befall you to die this side of it, be sure that to have died on the way is of equal value, if Christ shall find you in His army. God pays with the same shilling, whether at the first or eleventh hour.

The crowds hearing the Pope that day cried out:  Deus lo volt! ( God wills it), a cry that would soon ring throughout Europe and down through the centuries.  Much crime and folly were mixed in with the Crusades, as is the case with most massive human endeavors, but also an imperishable desire to do great things in the service of God.

On Ash Wednesday I have always taken to heart the formula:  “Remember Man thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”  It reminds me powerfully of the fleeting nature of our mortal life, and how short our time is to amend our lives and to do good in this world.  As we root out evil within us during this Lent, let us also remember the pope who first mentioned Ash Wednesday, and his immortal call for all Catholics to battle evil in the world around them.  As Christ confronted Satan in the first Lent, may we also have the courage to confront the evil of our times, fearlessly and unceasingly.  God wills it!

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6 Responses to Ash Wednesday: God Wills It!

  • T. Shaw says:

    Medieval penances included Crusades and pilgrimages. See St. Bernard de Clairvaux’ endorsement of the Knights Templars.

    Christendom suffered 400 years of Islamic invasions, massacres and rapines. Then in 1095, in defense of itself and of its “children,” Christendom launched the First Crusade.

    One cannot easily reconcile 21st century “human dignity/peace/justice/secularism” with 11th century Faith and piety.

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    Deus le volt

    Its interesting that you say the crowds shouted these words.

    Many commentators today claim that it was the Pope who uttered these words, and use that as one of the bases for attacking the Crusades – even many Catholics think this, and is now promoted by liberal teachers and scholars that the Crusades were an evil attack on ‘poor peaceful (gag) muslims’.

    I have even had to explain to people in our RCIA group – not just the candidates – how wrong this understanding is.

  • Popular ignorance of the Crusades Don is never to be underestimated. Most people are simply ignorant of the fact that Islam and Christianity had been at war for more than four centuries by the time of the First Crusade and that Islam was almost always the aggressor.

  • T. Shaw says:

    The Timeline
    630 Two years before Muhammad’s death of a fever, he launched the Tabuk Crusade, in which he led 30,000 jihadists against the Byzantine Christians.
    632-634 Caliph Abu Bakr reconquer sometimes conquer for the first time the polytheists of Arabia. The Arab polytheists had to convert to Islam or die.
    633 Khalid al-Walid, the Sword of Allah for his ferocity, conquers the city of Ullays along the Euphrates River (in today’s Iraq). Khalid captures and beheads so many that a nearby canal, into which the blood flowed, was called Blood Canal (Tabari 11:24 / 2034-35).
    634 At the Battle of Yarmuk in Syria the Muslim Crusaders defeat the Byzantines. .
    635 Muslim Crusaders besiege and conquer Damascus
    636 Muslim Crusaders defeat Byzantines decisively at Battle of Yarmuk.
    637 Muslim Crusaders conquer Iraq at the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah
    638 Muslim Crusaders conquer and annex Jerusalem, taking it from the Byzantines.
    638-650 Muslim Crusaders conquer Iran, except along Caspian Sea.
    639-642 Muslim Crusaders conquer Egypt.
    641 Muslim Crusaders control Syria and Palestine.
    643-707 Muslim Crusaders conquer North Africa.
    644-650 Muslim Crusaders conquer Cyprus, Tripoli in North Africa, and establish Islamic rule in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sind.
    673-678 Arabs besiege Constantinople, capital of Byzantine Empire
    691 Dome of the Rock is completed in Jerusalem, only six decades after Muhammad’s death.
    710-713 Muslim Crusaders conquer the lower Indus Valley.
    711-713 Muslim Crusaders conquer Spain and impose the kingdom of Andalus.
    732 The Muslim Crusaders stopped at the Battle of Poitiers; that is, Franks (France) halt Arab advance
    756 Foundation of Umayyid amirate in Cordova, Spain, setting up an independent kingdom from Abbasids
    785 Foundation of the Great Mosque of Cordova
    807 Caliph Harun al-Rashid orders the destruction of non-Muslim prayer houses and of the church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem
    809 Aghlabids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Sardinia, Italy
    813 Christians in Palestine are attacked; many flee the country
    831 Muslim Crusaders capture Palermo, Italy; raids in Southern Italy
    850 Caliph al-Matawakkil orders the destruction of non-Muslim houses of prayer
    837-901 Aghlabids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Sicily, raid Corsica, Italy, France
    909 Rise of the Fatimid Caliphate in Tunisia; these Muslim Crusaders occupy Sicily, Sardinia
    928-969 Byzantine military revival, they retake old territories, such as Cyprus (964) and Tarsus (969)
    937 The Ikhshid, a particularly harsh Muslim ruler, writes to Emperor Romanus, boasting of his control over the holy places
    937 The Church of the Resurrection (known as Church of Holy Sepulcher in Latin West) is burned down by Muslims; more churches in Jerusalem are attacked
    966 Anti-Christian riots in Jerusalem
    969 Fatimids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Egypt and found Cairo
    c. 970 Seljuks enter conquered Islamic territories from the East
    973 Israel and southern Syria are again conquered by the Fatimids
    1003 First persecutions by al-Hakim; the Church of St. Mark in Fustat, Egypt, is destroyed
    1009 Destruction of the Church of the Resurrection by al-Hakim (see 937)
    1012 Beginning of al-Hakim’s oppressive decrees against Jews and Christians
    1015 Earthquake in Palestine; the dome of the Dome of the Rock collapses
    1048 Reconstruction of the Church of the Resurrection completed
    1055 Confiscation of property of Church of the Resurrection
    1071 Battle of Manzikert, Seljuk Turks (Muslim Crusaders) defeat Byzantines and occupy much of Anatolia
    1071 Turks (Muslim Crusaders) invade Palestine
    1073 Conquest of Jerusalem by Turks (Muslim Crusaders)
    1075 Seljuks (Muslim Crusaders) capture Nicea (Iznik) and make it their capital in Anatolia
    1076 Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) (see 1050) conquer western Ghana
    1085 Toledo is taken back by Christian armies
    1086 Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) (see 1050) send help to Andalus, Battle of Zallaca
    1090-1091 Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) occupy all of Andalus except Saragossa and Balearic Islands
    1094 Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus I asks western Christendom for help against Seljuk invasions of his territory; Seljuks are Muslim Turkish family of eastern origins; see 970
    1095 Pope Urban II preaches first Crusade; they capture Jerusalem in 1099

    So it is only after four centuries of Islamic invasions Western Christendom launches its first Crusades.

  • Paul Bergeron says:

    “630 Two years before Muhammad’s death of a fever, he launched the Tabuk Crusade, in which he led 30,000 jihadists against the Byzantine Christians.” Muhammed did not launch a crusade, he launched a jihad.
    “634 At the Battle of Yarmuk in Syria the Muslim Crusaders defeat the Byzantines.” The jihadists are properly identified in the first sentence, then improperly identified as crusaders in the rest of the post. Otherwise a very good time line.

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