Tomorrow (Wednesday, February 18) is Ash Wednesday. As an Episcopalian, I attend Ash Wednesday service and wear a cross on my forehead for the day. Living in the south, I get some funny looks. And there’s always at least one person that tells me I have something on my face.
So, I thought I’d share a few facts about Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season, because it’s so much more than what you’ve chosen to give up for a few weeks. Also, I’ve sprinkled in a little church humor, because well….I’m me (don’t be offended)!
Who or what is a Lent?
Derived from the word lencten, which is Anglo-Saxon for springtime, Lent is the 40-day season of preparation prior to Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday.
It’s the Beginning of a Long 40 Days
Fat Tuesday, which precedes Ash Wednesday, is a legendary day of excess for good reason: it’s the last hurrah before a 40-day period of fasting known as Lent. Not all churches count those 40 days in the same way — most Western churches exclude Sundays, while Eastern churches do not. Nor does everyone fast to the same degree. For many Americans, Lent is a time to give up a single indulgent item. But some of the more traditionally-minded believers engage in more severe fasting and refrain from all celebrations.
Why is it 40 days?
Next to the number seven, the number 40 occurs most frequently in the Bible. It represents a period of testing or judgment. Lent’s duration of 40 days reflects other times of trial, testing and hardship found in the Scriptures:
- The story of Noah tells of rain falling on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days before beginning their missions.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt.
- It took the spies 40 days to search out the Promised Land and bring back fruit.
- Goliath taunted the Israelite army in the morning and evening for 40 days.
- Jonah warned the Ninevites they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry. (Source)
It’s Rooted in Biblical Tradition
Easter Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. The Lenten period, which directly precedes Easter, commemorates the events leading up to his death. By fasting, believers hope to replicate that period of their savior’s suffering.
The Ashes Come from Last Year’s Palm Tree
The smudges that appear annually on the foreheads of believers traditionally come from the ashes of a palm tree burned on Palm Sunday of the year before.
But all is not lost if you’ve misplaced the palm ashes from last year–these days, churches don’t have to go the traditional route. They can purchase the necessary supplies online, even on rush order. Commercial palm growers in southern states this year sold packets of ashes for about $10 an ounce, and many of them ran out of inventory days ago.
The Exact Origin of the Ritual is Unclear
In the Bible, there are instances where ashes are associated with mourning, including Jonah 3:6, Esther 4:1 and Isaiah 15:3. This ties into the notion that today’s Lent participants are mourning the period of Jesus’ suffering.
But the specific habit of applying ash on the face has debatable roots. Some say that any mark on the forehead is a symbol of ownership throughout the Bible, so this placement signifies obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Others have traced the ritual all the way back to ceremonies of the ancient Vedic Hindus, arguing that it was eventually absorbed into Christian lore.
There’s No Obligation
Unlike some other major holidays, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation. In other words, believers don’t have to go to church; they are only encouraged to do so in order to properly mark the beginning of Lent.
According to the Code of Canon Law, a guide set out by the Vatican, On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in Mass. Ash Wednesday is not included as a holy day. It is, however, a day of required abstention from meat and general fasting — that’s a reduction rather than cessation of consumption — for anyone between the ages of 18 and 60.
Some traditional Lenten practices and suggestions:
- Fasting and abstinence: donate the money you save to a food pantry
- Self-denial: use some of your time to help someone out
- Good deeds and almsgiving: give to a charity or volunteer to be a catechist
- Prayer and reflection: pray the Rosary or the daily mass readings
- Church services: attend daily mass or attend stations of the cross services
- Reading the Bible: read a gospel from beginning to end
In our home, we like to abstain from something, as well as, add a positive practice.
This year, I’ll be giving up desserts and adding a daily Joy Jar. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about her jar (read about it HERE). Every day you write down one thing on a scrap piece of paper that brought you joy. It sounds like a lovely practice, so that’s my plan. My jar is ready to go!
If you’re looking for some ideas for Lent, here are a few of my favorites…
- Go vegetarian or vegan
- Give up, soda, sweet, coffee, alcohol, etc…
- Turn off the radio in the car and use it as a quiet time
- Put away your scale (I did this one year and I never brought it back out!)
- Don’t swear
- Add yoga or meditation
- No cellphones at the table
No matter what you believe, Lent is a season for all of us. We can reflect, re-choose, and re-shape ourselves and our futures.
Do you observe Ash Wednesday and Lent?
Do you give up or add anything during the season of Lent? Share your ideas!!
Totally unrelated topic….We’re snowed-in in Nashville. What’s the weather like where you live?