Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I went to the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in NYC this morning to get my ashes, as I’ve done for years past on Ash Wednesday. I’m a life long Catholic, with—admittedly—periods of agnosticism and atheism (a long story for another blog post). But I’ve been back to the home town religion for the last 23 years or so. I’ve been getting my ashes for so long, that I’ve lost track of the reason behind it. That’s a big no-no in Christianity. Jesus explicitly distinguished His followers from the pagans by noting that the pagans followed ritual without worship. In other words, they went through the motions without understanding why. For His followers, however, Jesus wanted them to know and understand by worshipping in their hearts and by their deeds. So, what did I do? I’ve researched Lent and Ash Wednesday!

Yes, I know that Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season in the Christian calendar, the 40 day period of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, but I wanted to know more. According to the pamphlet handed out in St. Patrick’s, in explanation of Ash Wednesday:

“The ashes of Ash Wednesday not only describe our humanity, more emphatically, they are a proclamation of hope, reconciliation and peace. Ashes give symbolic expression to our trusting dependence in God’s merciful love.”

Okay. Now for the explanation for Lent in the pamphlet:

“Lent is the period of forty days during which we examine our lives in order to renew our faith. Through acts of love, we become more like Christ in our attitude toward God and one another. Let prepares us to take part fully in the celebration of the Easter Mysteries during the Triduum (3 days) of the Lord’s Supper, his Passion, Death and glorious resurrection on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the holiest days of the Christian year.”

Being a history buff, I couldn’t stop there. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent and Ash Wednesday first arose at different times. The word Lent is Teutonic in origin and referred originally to the spring season. The significance of the number 40 invokes both Moses and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert in preparation of His ministry, and Jesus lying 40 hours in the tomb.

A preliminary 40 day fast for Easter arose in the Fourth Century. This was not inclusive to the then separate custom of fasting during Holy Week. This preliminary fasting period became known as Lent. By the Fifth Century, Lent lasted for six weeks including Holy Week, but there was actually only three total weeks of fasting excluding the weekends. Soon there was a split, with some Christian communities insisting on 40 actual days of fasting and, thus, Lent would last eight weeks (40 days plus non-fasting weekends) with other communities sticking with the six week tradition. By the Seventh Century the six week tradition won out, but with six days a week fasting for a total of 36 fasting days. The tradition of beginning Lent with Ash Wednesday began in the Eighth Century. It arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. The ashes themselves are from the previously blessed palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday. By the Middle Ages, Lent consisted of forty weekdays which were all fast days, and six Sundays with Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent.

As to the fast itself, there has never been a hard tradition. Some Christian communities abstained from eating anything that was once alive, others abstained from all living creatures except fish, and others only ate birds and fish. There was a consensus, however, that for fasting days there was only one meal a day and it was taken in the evening. Over the years, the fasting requirements were relaxed and now in the United States no meat may be eaten on Ash Wednesday, Lenten Fridays including Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The origin of making a Lenten sacrifice is more obscure, but probably arose with the relaxation of the fasting requirement.


  1. You think you're bad for not remember what it really was for, I'm worse. Until I saw someone walking in the street with some sort of dirt on their forehead I had forgotten about the day altogether.
    Currently I am in my agnostic stage so I'm almost sure that I won't follow all these rules this seasons, however, today I spent the afternoon with a close friend whose family happens to be very religious and something weird happened. When he ordered his food he ordered a fish sandwich, which I know to be out of the ordinary for my chicken loving friend. He reminded me that we aren't supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday. Even though I sucked my teeth and rolled my eyes and stated "I don't believe in all that crap" when it came my turn to order I chickened out (pun intended) and got a grilled cheese and fries instead of anything meaty.
    I don't know what that says about me as a person or a Catholic but that's my story and I' sticking to it.

  2. Ivonne said...
    My brothers and I went to catholic school and I can’t recall to this day if we were explained the actual meaning of Ash Wednesday. I began to really learn what the first day of Lent, which is the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday truly meant until I began taking Catechism classes some years ago. I teach my students and my children that Lent is a time of fasting, reflecting, and repentance, and for examining our conscious and spirit. I also teach that on Ash Wednesday, ashes taken from the burned palm branched of the previous Palm Sunday are placed onto the forehead in the sign of the cross as a reminder of Christ's death. I believe children should be given the whole picture if they are to appreciate that task at hand.

    As a child we were traditionally taught that we should fast or give up something but I myself do not feel children should fast as adults do during Lent, there are many other ways I choose to teach my children on how they can participate celebrating these 40 days. Spend Ash Wednesday with your children like choosing a charitable organization or another cause to donate the collected alms-fund. Ash Wednesday is a great time to introduce children to the meaning and purpose of the season of Lent. Children can learn what it means to sacrifice by fasting from video games, TV, or some other activity or hobby.

    The idea is to teach the child that faith and time alone with God will grow through sacrifice. I believe that children can be taught to turn to God when the thing they are fasting from begins to allure them, just as adults who fast from food. The purpose of the fast is to take time to refocus one's mind and thoughts on God.

  3. I'm a Southern Baptist and a least Catholicism has some religion in it. *smirk* I mean we don't have Ash Wednesday but there is inordinate emphasis on being baptized I guess, I'm actually a little confused about the whole thing, I was actually baptized Presbyterian 'cause my mom jumped from church to church and I don't know why.Don't lawyers live with a lot of temptation?