Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day liturgical season called Lent. When we say liturgical, we refer to “public church worship.” Churches that are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, Presbyterian, Amish, and Mennonite observe annual Lenten services. The first four mentioned churches most formally observe Lent.
From a Roman Catholic perspective, the forty days of Lent do not include the six Lenten Sundays that precede Easter. All Sundays celebrate the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection.
The word Lent itself is derived from the Old English word lencten, which means “spring,” a season when nature grows from seed to flower. That which lay dormant comes to life, just as the departed Jesus lying in the tomb rises from the dead on Easter Sunday, the day after the conclusion of Lent. While Easter Sunday is a celebration, the Lenten days that precede it are days of preparation, a time of prayer, fasting, and reflection during which participants repent of their sins.
Lent is the most solemn season of the Church. The priest celebrates Mass in purple garments instead of the red, green, yellow, and white of non-Lenten days. On Good Friday and Saturday the vestments worn by the priest are black. Then on Easter Sunday they are white. Even the hymns sung at Lenten masses are more subdued.
Growing up Roman Catholic, I called Lent “time to give up something,” whereby I could in an infinitesimally small way join my sacrifice to that supreme sacrifice of himself that Christ offered on Calvary. Later on I came to understand that the accent was not so much on what one gave up but on what one took on. In other words, what good deeds could I perform in imitating Christ, rather than what less than good deeds from which I could refrain. Now in my senior years I recognize Lent as an opportunity for us to love Jesus, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, who was born of human flesh so that he could do the will of his Father in Heaven by dying for our sins.
For the first three centuries after Christ’s Resurrection, Lent lasted only a few days; in fact, in the First Century Lent was a forty-hour period of prayer and fasting. The first official observance of forty-day Lent was recorded at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and by 490 the practice was universally accepted.
In those early centuries Lent was associated with baptism. New converts to Christianity entered the Church via baptism which welcomed them “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” These proselytes prepared for their Easter Sunday baptism in the same way Roman Catholics and other Christians do today.
The earliest mention of ashes as a religious ritual dates back to the Old Testament when the prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance. “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). Isaiah also speaks of it. “”Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Is 58:5). In the book of Judith, repentance is demonstrated by covering the heads of the people with ashes.
“And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord” (Jdt 4:11). Jesus himself spoke of this practice when he admonished the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida with “Woe to you! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).
At the beginning of the 12th Century, Christian priests began applying ashes to the foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a cross, and stating, “Remember that thou are dust and unto dust thou shall return.” The ashes from burnt palm branches from the Palm Sunday of the year before.
To assist parishioners in carrying out their Lenten duties, the Roman Catholic Church asks that healthy Catholics between 14 and 59 years old fast by abstaining from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Lenten Fridays as marked on liturgical calendars with the outline of a fish. By the way, In very early Christianity, the fish –– ichthus in Greek –– was an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” It served as a symbolic password to mark meeting places and tombs. As a boy I thought the symbol referred to “no meat today. East fish!”
Repentance is the primary purpose of Lent. Prophets of the Old Testament are constantly commanding God’s Chosen People to repent of their sins or suffer the wrath of an angry God. In the New Testament we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying in the desert, warning the people to change their sinful ways.
Jesus spoke of repentance in numerous Biblical passages.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
“This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48).
“If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
Lent is the liturgical season of rebirth. Just as God the Father raised His son Jesus the Christ from the dead, Christians too must wake from the death called sin. By preparing for the paschal celebration of Easter Sunday, Christians can stand with Paul who in his letter to the Corinthians wrote, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Sal Buttaci is the author of two flash-fiction collections Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts, both published by All Things That Matter Press and available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Salvatore%20Buttaci
He lives in West Virginia with Sharon the love of his life.