Thursday, February 12, 2015
What is Ash Wednesay? What is Lent?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian Lenten season. On Ash Wednesday, Christians go to church to have the priest or minister make the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. In the Catholic tradition, ashes used are made from burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, they are mixed with Holy Water and then blessed. The ashes signify the impermanence of life, reminding us that someday we will all die. In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
Significance of Ashes
Ashes are also a sign of mourning and repentance. People in Old Testament times would show their grief and mourning by tearing their garments and putting ashes on their heads (e.g. a soldier -2 Sam 1:20, Tamar-2 Samuel 13:19, Mordecai - Esther 4:1). The Anglo-Saxon homilist, Ælfric (c.955–c.1010), writes: “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 a little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
Significance of Forty Days
The word Lent is from Teutonic and originally meant only ‘the spring season’. In Latin the term used is quadragesima and this is retained in the Romance languages: French carême, Italian quaresima, and Spanish cuaresma. Forty is a significant number in Scripture. God sent rain in the flood of Noah for forty days and nights (Genesis 7:4), Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18), the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years (Numbers 14:33), Jonah gave the city of Nineveh forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4) and Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-2, Luke 4:1-2). In traditional belief, Jesus is said to have been in the tomb for forty hours (Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning). The six weeks of Lent are calculated as follows: Ash Wednesday to Good Friday =46 days -6 Sundays=40 days.
The colour of the vestments during Lent is violet, signifying mourning and penance. In the Roman Catholic Mass, Lutheran Divine Service and Anglican Eucharist, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God) is not sung from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil.
Purpose of Lent
Lent is meant to be the time for preparation of Christians. Through increased prayer, penitence, almsgiving (ie all charitable works) and fasting, the Christian deepens his or her relationship with Jesus. A custom is to ‘give up a vice or habit’ during the time of Lent but this should not be ‘just something one is supposed to do for Lent’ without any real desire to change one’s life permanently. In fact, one does not have to ‘give something up’ but could add something such as going to daily mass, reading Scripture daily or praying the Rosary daily. One could read a devotional book during lent. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s books on the life of Jesus would be good ones to read.
In the Roman Catholic Church it is traditional to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent. The Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches abstain from all animal products, including fish, eggs, and milk.
Lent was universally practised until the Reformation when some Protestant denominations did away with the Lent practices. Lutherans and Anglicans (the Church of England) retained Lent. Now other Protestant churches are beginning to observe Lent once again thus uniting Christians in this meaningful event.
Lent is a time of reflection which culminates in the great joy of the Resurrection during the Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter Sunday).