Today is Ash Wednesday
Lent (the word “Lent” comes from the Old English “lencten,” meaning “springtime) lasts from Ash Wednesday to the Vespers of Holy Saturday — forty days + six Sundays which don’t count as “Lent” liturgically. The Latin name for Lent, Quadragesima, means forty and refers to the forty days Christ spent in the desert which is the origin of the Season.The last two weeks of Lent are known as “Passiontide,” made up of Passion Week and Holy Week. The last three days of Holy Week — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday — are known as the “Sacred Triduum.”
The focus of this Season is the Cross and penance, penance, penance as we imitate Christ’s forty days of fasting, like Moses and Elias before Him, and await the triumph of Easter. We fast (see below), abstain, mortify the flesh, give alms, and think more of charitable works. Awakening each morning with the thought, “How might I make amends for my sins? How can I serve God in a reparative way? How can I serve others today?” is the attitude to have.
We meditate on “The Four Last Things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, and we also practice mortifications by “giving up something” that would be a sacrifice to do without. The sacrifice could be anything from desserts to television to the marital embrace, and it can entail, too, taking on something unpleasant that we’d normally avoid, for example, going out of one’s way to do another’s chores, performing “random acts of kindness,” etc. A practice that might help some, especially small children, to think sacrificially is to make use of “Sacrifice Beads” in the same way that St. Thérèse of Lisieux did as a child.
Because of the focus on penance and reparation, it is traditional to make sure we go to Confession at least once during this Season to fulfill the precept of the Church that we go to Confession at least once a year, and receive the Eucharist at least once a year during Eastertide. A beautiful old custom associated with Lenten Confession is to, before going to see the priest, bow before each member of your household and to any you’ve sinned against, and say, “In the Name of Christ, forgive me if I’ve offended you.” One responds with “God will forgive you.” Done with an extensive examination of conscience and a sincere heart, this practice can be quite healing (also note that confessing sins to a priest is a Sacrament which remits mortal and venial sins; confessing sins to those you’ve offended is a sacramental which, like all sacramentals one piously takes advantage of, remits venial sins. Both are quite good for the soul!)
In addition to mortification and charity, seeing and living Lent as a forty day spiritual retreat is a good thing to do. Spiritual reading should be engaged in (over and above one’s regular Lectio Divina). Maria von Trapp recommended “the Book of Jeremias and the works of Saints, such as The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross; The Introduction to a Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales; The Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux; The Spiritual Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila; the Soul of the Apostolate, by Abbot Chautard; the books of Abbot Marmion, and similar works.”
As to prayer, praying the beautiful Seven Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142) is a traditional practice. It is most traditional to pray all of these each day of Lent, but if time is an issue, you can pray them all on just the Fridays of Lent, or, because there are seven of them, and seven Fridays in Lent, you might want to consider praying one on each Friday. These Psalms, which include the Psalms “Miserére” and “De Profundis,” are perfect expressions of contrition and prayers for mercy. So apt are these Psalms at expressing contrition that, as he lay dying in A.D. 430, St. Augustine asked that a monk write them in large letters near his bed so he could easily read them.
Another great prayer for this season is that of St. Ephraem, Doctor of the Church (d. 373). This prayer is often prayed with a prostration after each stanza:
O Lord and Master of my life,
take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power, and idle talk;
But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions,
and not to judge my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.
In the East, this prayer is prayed liturgically during Lent and is followed by “O God, cleanse me a sinner” prayed twelve times, with a bow following each, and one last prostration.
Also, on all Fridays during Lent, one may gain a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, by reciting the En ego, O bone et dulcissime Iesu (Prayer Before a Crucifix) before an image of Christ crucified.
Food in Lent
According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the rule for the universal Church during Lent is abstain on all Fridays (inside or outside of Lent) and to both fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Some traditional Catholics might follow the older pattern of fasting and abstinence during this time, which for the universal Church required:
- Ash Wednesday, all Fridays, and all Saturdays: fasting and total abstinence. This means 3 meatless meals — with the two smaller meals not equalling in size the main meal of the day — and no snacking.
- Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays (except Ash Wednesday), and Thursdays: fasting and partial abstinence from meat. This means three meals — with the two smaller meals not equalling in size the main meal of the day — and no snacking, but meat can be eaten at the principle meal.
On those days of fasting and abstinence, meatless soup is traditional. Sundays, of course, are always free of fasting and abstinence; even in the heart of Lent, Sundays are about the glorious Resurrection. This pattern of fasting and abstinence ends after the Vigil Mass of Holy Saturday.
As to special Lenten foods, vegetables, seafoods, salads, pastas, and beans mark the Season, in addition to the meatless soups. The fasting of this time once even precluded the eating of eggs and fats, so the chewy pretzel became the bread and symbol of the times. They’d always been a Christian food, ever since Roman times, their very shape being the creation of monks. The three holes represent the Holy Trinity, and the twists of the dough represent the arms of someone praying. In fact, the word “pretzel” is a German word deriving ultimately from the Latin “bracellae,” meaning “little arms” (the Vatican has the oldest known representation of a pretzel, found on a 5th c. manuscript). Below is a recipe for the large, soft, chewy pretzels that go so well with beer. (2)
by St. Thomas Aquinas
Ash Wednesday : Death
By one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death.–Rom. v. 12.
1. If for some wrongdoing a man is deprived of some benefit once given to him, that he should lack that benefit is the punishment of his sin.
Now in man’s first creation he was divinely endowed with this advantage that, so long as his mind remained subject to God, the lower powers of his soul were subjected to the reason and the body was subjected to the soul.
But because by sin man’s mind moved away from its subjection to God, it followed that the lower parts of his mind ceased to be wholly subjected to the reason. From this there followed such a rebellion of the bodily inclination against the reason, that the body was no longer wholly subject to the soul.
Whence followed death and all the bodily defects. For life and wholeness of body are bound up with this, that the body is wholly subject to the soul, as a thing which can be made perfect is subject to that which makes it perfect. So it comes about that, conversely, there are such things as death, sickness and every other bodily defect, for such misfortunes are bound up with an incomplete subjection of body to soul.
2. The rational soul is of its nature immortal, and therefore death is not natural to man in so far as man has a soul. It is natural to his body, for the body, since it is formed of things contrary to each other in nature, is necessarily liable to corruption, and it is in this respect that death is natural to man.
But God who fashioned man is all powerful. And hence, by an advantage conferred on the first man, He took away that necessity of dying which was bound up with the matter of which man was made. This advantage was however withdrawn through the sin of our first parents.
Death is then natural, if we consider the matter of which man is made and it is a penalty, inasmuch as it happens through the loss of the privilege whereby man was preserved from dying.
3. Sin–original sin and actual sin–is taken away by Christ, that is to say, by Him who is also the remover of all bodily defects. He shall quicken also your mortal bodies, because of His Spirit that dwelleth in you (Rom. viii. II).
But, according to the order appointed by a wisdom that is divine, it is at the time which best suits that Christ takes away both the one and the other, i.e., both sin and bodily defects.
Now it is only right that, before we arrive at that glory of impassibility and immortality which began in Christ, and which was acquired for us through Christ, we should be shaped after the pattern of Christ’s sufferings. It is then only right that Christ’s liability to suffer should remain in us too for a time, as a means of our coming to the impassibility of glory in the way He himself came to it. (6)
by Abbot Gueranger
Yesterday the world was busy in its pleasures, and the very children of God were taking a joyous farewell to mirth: but this morning, all is changed. The solemn announcement, spoken of by the prophet, has been proclaimed in Sion: the solemn fast of Lent, the season of expiation, the approach of the great anniversaries of our Redemption. Let us then rouse ourselves, and prepare for the spiritual combat.
But in this battling of the spirit against the flesh we need good armor. Our Holy Mother the Church knows how much we need it; and therefore does She summon us to enter into the house of God, that She may arm us for the holy contest. What this armor is we know from St. Paul, who thus describes it: “Have your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice. And your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace. In all things, taking the shield of Faith. Take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6: 14-17). The very Prince of the Apostles, too, addresses these solemn words to us: “Christ having suffered in the flesh, be ye also armed with the same thought” (1 Peter 4: 1). We are entering today upon a long campaign of the warfare spoken of by the Apostles: forty days of battle, forty days of penance. We shall not turn cowards, if our souls can but be impressed with the conviction, that the battle and the penance must be gone through. Let us listen to the eloquence of the solemn rite which opens our Lent. Let us go whither our Mother leads us, that is, to the scene of the fall.
The enemies we have to fight with, are of two kinds: internal and external. The first are our passions; the second are the devils. Both were brought on us by pride, and man’s pride began when he refused to obey his God. God forgave him his sin, but He punished him. The punishment was death, and this was the form of the divine sentence: “For dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return” (Gen. 3: 19). Oh that we had remembered this! The recollection of what we are and what we are to be, would have checked that haughty rebellion, which has so often led us to break the law of God. And if, for the time to come, we would persevere in loyalty to Him, we must humble ourselves, accept the sentence, and look on this present life as a path to the grave. The path may be long or short; but to the tomb it must lead us. Remembering this, we shall see all things in their true light. We shall love that God, Who has deigned to set His Heart on us, notwithstanding our being creatures of death: we shall hate, with deepest contrition, the insolence and ingratitude, wherewith we have spent so many of our few days of life, that is, in sinning against our Heavenly Father: and we shall be not only willing, but eager, to go through these days of penance, which He so mercifully gives us for making reparation to His offended justice.
This was the motive the Church had in enriching Her liturgy with the solemn rite, at which we are to assist today. When centuries ago She decreed the anticipation of the Lenten fast by the last four days of Quinquagesima week, She instituted this impressive ceremony of signing the foreheads of Her children with ashes, while saying to them those awful words, wherewith God sentenced us to death: “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return!” But the making use of ashes as a symbol of humiliation and penance, is of a much earlier date than the institution to which we allude. We find frequent mention of it in the Old Testament. Job, though a Gentile, sprinkled his flesh with ashes, that thus humbled, he might propitiate the Divine mercy (Job 16: 16): and this was 2,000 years before the coming of the Savior. The royal prophet tells us of himself, that he mingled ashes with his bread, because of the Divine anger and indignation (Ps. 101: 10, 11). Many such examples are to be met with in the sacred Scriptures; but so obvious is the analogy between the sinner who thus signifies his grief, and the object whereby he signifies it, that we read such instances without surprise. When fallen man would humble himself before the Divine justice, which has sentenced his body to return to dust, how could he more aptly express his contrite acceptance of the sentence, than by sprinkling himself, or his food, with ashes, which is the dust of wood consumed by fire? This earnest acknowledgment of his being himself but dust and ashes, is an act of humility, and humility ever gives him confidence in that God, Who resists the proud and pardons the humble.
It is probable that, when this ceremony of the Wednesday after Quinquagesima was first instituted, it was not intended for all the faithful, but only for such as had committed any of those crimes for which the Church inflicted a public penance. Before the Mass of the day began, they presented themselves at the church, where the people were all assembled. The priests received the confession of their sins, and then clothed them in sackcloth, and sprinkled ashes on their heads. After this ceremony, the clergy and the faithful prostrated, and recited aloud the Seven Penitential Psalms. A procession, in which the penitents walked barefoot, then followed; and on its return, the bishop addressed these words to the penitents: “Behold, we drive you from the doors of the church by reason of your sins and crimes, as Adam, the first man, was driven out of paradise because of his transgression.” The clergy then sang several responsories, taken from the Book of Genesis, in which mention was made of the sentence pronounced by God when He condemned man to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, for that the earth was cursed on account of sin. The doors were then shut, and the penitents were not to pass the threshold until Holy Thursday, when they were to come and receive absolution.
Dating from the 11th century, the discipline of public penance began to fall into disuse, and the holy rite of putting ashes on the heads of all the faithful indiscriminately became so general that, at length, it was considered as forming an essential part of the Roman Liturgy. Formerly, it was the practice to approach bare-footed to receive this solemn memento of our nothingness; and in the 12th century, even the Pope himself, when passing from the church of St. Anastasia to that of St. Sabina, at which the station was held, went the whole distance bare-footed, as also did the Cardinals who accompanied him. The Church no longer requires this exterior penance; but She is as anxious as ever that the holy ceremony, at which we are about to assist, should produce in us the sentiments She intended to convey by it, when She first instituted it.
As we have just mentioned, the station in Rome is at St. Sabina, on the Aventine Hill. It is under the patronage of this holy Martyr that we open the penitential season of Lent. The liturgy begins with the Blessing of the Ashes, which are to be put on our foreheads. These ashes are made from the palms, which were blessed the previous Palm Sunday. The blessing they are now to receive in this their new form, is given in order that they may be made more worthy of that mystery of contrition and humility which they are intended to symbolize.
When the priest puts the holy emblem of penance upon you, accept in a spirit of submission, the sentence of death, which God Himself pronounces against you: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return!” Humble yourself, and remember what it was (pride) that brought the punishment of death upon us: man wished to be as a god, and preferred his own will to that of his Sovereign Master.
Reflect, too, on that long list of sins, which you have added to the sin of your first parents, and adore the mercy of your God, Who asks only one death for all these your transgressions.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6: 16). In the Gospel of the Mass, we learn that our Redeemer would not have us receive the announcement of the great fast as one of sadness and melancholy. The Christian who understands what a dangerous thing it is to be a debtor to Divine justice, welcomes the season of Lent with joy; it consoles him. He knows that if he be faithful in observing what the Church prescribes, his debt will be less heavy upon him. These penances, these satisfactions (which the indulgence of the Church has rendered so easy), being offered to God united with those of our Savior Himself, and being rendered fruitful by that holy fellowship which blends into one common propitiatory sacrifice the good works of all the members of the Church militant, will purify our souls, and make them worthy to partake in the grand Easter joy. Let us not, then, be sad because we are to fast; let us be sad only because we have sinned and made fasting a necessity. In this same Gospel, our Redeemer gives us a second counsel, which the Church will often bring before us during the whole course of Lent: it is that of joining almsdeeds with our fasting. He bids us to lay up treasures in Heaven. For this we need intercessors; let us seek them amidst the poor.
Every day during Lent, Sundays and feasts excepted, the priest before dismissing the faithful, adds after the Postcommunion a special prayer, which is preceded by these words of admonition: “Let us pray. Bow down your heads to God.” On this day he continues: “Mercifully look down upon us, O Lord, bowing down before Thy Divine Majesty, that they who have been refreshed with Thy Divine Mysteries, may always be supported by Thy heavenly aid. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ… Amen.” (9)
by Rev. James Luke Meagher, 1883
The fast of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts till Easter Sunday. During this time there are forty-six days, but as we do not fast on the six Sundays falling in this time, the fast lasts for forty days. For that reason it is called the forty days of Lent. In the Latin language of the Church it is called the Quadragesima, that is, forty. St. Peter, the first Pope, instituted the forty days of Lent. During the forty-six days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we are to spend the time in fasting and in penance for our sins, building up the temple of the Lord within our hearts, after having come forth from the Babylon of this world by the rites and the services of the Septuagesima season. And as of old we read that the Jews, after having been delivered from their captivity in Babylon, spent forty-six years in building their temple in place of the grand edifice raised by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, thus must we rebuild the temple of the Holy Ghost, built by God at the moment of our baptism, but destroyed by the sins of the past year. Again in the Old Testament the tenth part of all the substance of the Jews was given to the Lord (Exod. xxli. 29). Thus we must give him the tenth part of our time while on this earth. For forty days we fast, but taking out the Sundays of Lent, when there is no fast, it leaves thirty-six days, nearly the tenth part of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. According to Pope Gregory from the first Sunday of Lent to Easter, there are six weeks, making forty-two days, and when we take from Lent the six Sundays during which we do not fast, we have left thirty-six days, about the tenth part of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.
The forty days of fasting comes down to us from the Old Testament, for we read that Moses fasted forty days on the mount (Exod. xxiv. et xxxiv. 28). We are told that Elias fasted for forty days (III. Kings xix. 8), and again we see that our Lord fasted forty days in the desert (Math. iv.; Luke ix). We are to follow the example of these great men of the old law. But in order to make up the full fast of forty days of Moses, of Elias and of our Lord, Pope Gregory commanded the fast of Lent to begin on Ash Wednesday before the first Sunday of the Lenten season.
Christ began his fast of forty days after his baptism in the Jordan, on Epiphany, the twelfth of January, when he went forth into the desert. But we do not begin the Lent after Epiphany, because there are other feasts and seasons in which to celebrate the mysteries of the childhood of our Lord before we come to his fasting, and because during these forty days of Lent we celebrate the forty years of the Jews in the desert, who, when their wanderings were ended, they celebrated their Easter, while we hold ours after the days of Lent are finished. Again, during Lent, we celebrate the passion of our Lord, and as after His passion came His resurrection, thus we celebrate the glories of His resurrection at Easter.
During the services of Lent we read so often the words: “Humble your heads before the Lord,” and “let us bend our knees,” because it is the time when we should humble ourselves before God and bend our knees in prayers. After the words, “Let us bend our knees,” comes the word, “Arise.” These words are never said on Sunday, but only on week days, for Sunday is dedicated to the resurrection of our Lord. Pope Gregory says: “Who bends the knee on Sunday denies God to have risen.” We bend our knees and prostrate ourselves to the earth in prayer, to show the weakness of our bodies, which are made of earth; to show the weakness of our minds and imagination, which we cannot control; to show our shame for sin, for we cannot lift our eyes to heaven; to follow the example of our Lord, who came down from heaven and prostrated himself on the ground in the garden when in prayer (Matt. xxvi. 39); to show that we were driven from Paradise and that we are prone towards earthly things; to show that we follow the example of our father in the faith, Abraham, who, falling upon the earth, adored the Lord (Gen. xviii. 2). This was the custom from the beginning of the Christian Church, as Origen says: “The holy prophets when they were surrounded with trials fell upon their faces, that their sins might be purged by the affliction of their bodies.” Thus following the words of St. Paul: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephes. iii. 14),” we prostrate ourselves and bend our knees in prayer. From Ash Wednesday to Passion Sunday the Preface of Lent is said every day, unless there comes a feast with a Preface of its own. That custom was in vogue as far back as the twelfth century.
At other times of the year, the clergy say the Office of Vespers after noon, but an ancient Council allowed Vespers to be commenced after Mass. This is when the Office is said altogether by the clergy in the choir. The same may be done by each clergyman when reciting privately his Office. This cannot be done on the Sundays of Lent, as they are not fasting days. The “Go, the dismissal is at hand,” is not said, but in its place, “Let us bless the Lord,” for, from the earliest times the clergy and the people remained in the church to sing the Vesper Office and to pray during this time of fasting and of penance.
We begin the fast of Lent on Wednesday, for the most ancient traditions of the Church tell us that while our Lord was born on Sunday, he was baptized on Tuesday, and began his fast in the desert on Wednesday. Again, Solomon began the building of his great temple on Wednesday, and we are to prepare our bodies by fasting, to become the temples of the Holy Ghost, as the Apostle says, “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you (I. Cor. iii. 16)?” To begin well the Lent, one of the old Councils directed all the people with the clergy to come to the church on Ash Wednesday to assist at the Mass and the Vesper Offices and to give help to the poor, then they were allowed to go and break their fast.
The name Ash Wednesday comes from the ceremony of putting ashes on the heads of the clergy and the people on this day. Let us understand the meaning of this rite. When man sinned by eating in the garden the forbidden fruit, God drove him from Paradise with the words: “For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return (Gen. iii. 19).” Before his sin, Adam was not to die, but to be carried into heaven after a certain time of trial here upon this earth. But he sinned, and by that sin he brought upon himself and us, his children, death. Our bodies, then, are to return to the dust from which God made them, to which they are condemned by the sin of Adam. What wisdom the Church shows us when she invites us by these ceremonies to bring before our minds the dust and the corruption of the grave by putting ashes on our heads. We see the great men of old doing penance in sackcloth and ashes. Job did penance in dust and ashes (Job ii. 12). By the mouth of His prophet the Lord commanded the Jews “in the house of the dust sprinkle yourselves with dust (Mich. i. 10).” Abraham said, “I will speak to the Lord, for I am dust and ashes (Gen xviii. 27).” Joshua and all the ancients of Israel fell on their faces before the Lord and put dust upon their heads (Joshua vii. 6). When the ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines, the soldier came to tell the sad story with his head covered with dust (I Kings iv. 12).
When Job’s three friends came and found him in such affliction, “they sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven (Job ii. 12).” “The sorrows of the daughters of Israel are seen in the dust upon their heads (Lam. ii. 10).” Daniel said his prayers to the Lord his God in fasting, sackcloth and ashes (Dan. ix. 3). Our Lord tells us that if in Tyre and Sidon had been done the miracles seen in Judea, that they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes (Matt. xi. 21; Luke x. 13). When the great city will be destroyed, its people will cry out with grief, putting dust upon their heads (Apoc. xviii. 19). From these parts of the Bible, the reader will see that dust and ashes were used by the people of old as a sign of deep sorrow for sin, and that when they fasted they covered their heads with ashes. From them the Church copied these ceremonies which have come down to us. And on this day, when we begin our fast, we put ashes on our heads with the words, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return (Gen. iii. 19).”
In the beginning of the Church the ceremony of putting the ashes on the heads of the people was only for those who were guilty of sin, and who were to spend the season of Lent in public penance. Before Mass they came to the church, confessed their sins, and received from the hands of the clergy the ashes on their heads. Then the clergy and all the people prostrated themselves upon the earth and there recited the seven penitential psalms. Rising, they formed into a procession with the penitents walking barefooted. When they came back the penitents were sent out of the church by the bishop, saying : “We drive you from the bosom of the Church on account of your sins and for your crimes, as Adam, the first man was driven from Paradise because of his sin.” While the clergy were singing those parts of Genesis, where we read that God condemned our first parents to be driven from the garden and condemned to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, the porters fastened the doors of the church on the penitents, who were not allowed to enter the temple of the Lord again till they finished their penance and came to be absolved on Holy Thursday (Gueranger, Le Temps de la Septuagesima, p. 242). After the eleventh century public penance began to be laid aside, but the custom of putting ashes on the heads of the clergy became more and more common, till at length it became part of the Latin Rite. Formerly they used to come up to the altar railing in their bare feet to receive the ashes, and that solemn notice of their death and of the nothingness of man. In the twelfth century the Pope and all his court came to the Church of St. Sabina, in Rome, walking all the way in his bare feet, from whence the title of the Mass said on Ash Wednesday is the Station at St. Sabina. (4)
Image: Ash Wednesday, artist: Julian Fałat, date: 1881 (12)
Research by REGINA Staff