The time has now come in the Church year for the solemn observance of the great central act of history, the redemption of the human race by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which is used in today’s liturgy. The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. The Alleluia and the Gloria are suppressed until Easter.
Every year, people tend to ask each other what they’re “giving up” for Lent, which is certainly a fair question given that self-denial for the purpose of spiritual growth is an integral part of the season. I am seriously contemplating giving up Dunkin Donuts coffee as I know that would truly be a sacrifice for me, although it might seem trivial to someone else. Although I only drink one cup in the morning, to eschew my daily a.m. ritual of grabbing a large DD coffee with plenty of cream and two Truvia before starting my work would definitely make an impact. A small reminder of a monumental sacrifice made by someone else on my behalf.
But beyond that, Lent should also involve active doing – inconveniencing yourself by giving of your time to others, spending more time in prayer and reflection, curbing your vices (e.g. a quick temper) and attending mass daily, if possible. Of course, for Catholics there’s also a strict requirement:
Abstinence from eating meat is to be observed on all Fridays during Lent. This applies to all persons 14 and older. The law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday applies to all Catholics from age 18 through age 59.
I always loved this tradition as Fridays during Lent usually involved spaghetti with white clam sauce, crab cakes, flounder, pizza and other yummy “non-meat” meal offerings. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of my favorite Christmas rituals, after all.
On a serious note, it’s a time to truly draw closer to God, become a better person and learn from past mistakes as we reflect upon God’s willingness to send His only Son as our Redeemer.
So what’s the significance of Ash Wednesday?
At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed during Mass, after the homily. The blessed ashes are then “imposed” on the faithful as a sign of conversion, penance, fasting and human mortality. The ashes are blessed at least during the first Mass of the day, but they may also be imposed during all the Masses of the day, after the homily, and even outside the time of Mass to meet the needs of the faithful. Priests or deacons normally impart this sacramental, but instituted acolytes, other extraordinary ministers or designated lay people may be delegated to impart ashes, if the bishop judges that this is necessary. The ashes are made from the palms used at the previous Passion Sunday ceremonies.
The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. — Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy
From the very early times the commemoration of the approach of Christ’s passion and death was observed by a period of self-denial. St. Athanasius in the year 339 enjoined upon the people of Alexandria the 40 days’ fast he saw practiced in Rome and elsewhere, “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.” On Ash Wednesday in the early days, the Pope went barefoot to St. Sabina’s in Rome “to begin with holy fasts the exercises of Christian warfare, that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial.”
Finally, here’s a suggested prayer to get things off to the very best start. Although designed for a family, I plan to tailor it to me as an individual:
This prayer is designed to be said within the family before a Crucifix from Ash Wednesday to Saturday at the beginning of Lent.
Mother or a child: From the words of St. John the Evangelist (14:1-6).
Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Were it not so, I would have told you, because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I am coming again, and I will take you to myself, that where I am, there you also may be. And where I go, you know, and the way you know.
Father: We ought to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
Family: in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection.
Father: Let us pray. Grant to your faithful, Lord, a spirit generous enough to begin these solemn fasts with proper fervor and to pursue them with steadfast devotion. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
Family: Amen. Favor this dwelling, Lord, with your presence. Far from it repulse all the wiles of Satan. Your holy angels—let them live here, to keep us in peace. And may your blessing remain always upon us. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
Father: Let us bless the Lord.
Family: Thanks be to God.
Father: May the almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless and keep us.
Wishing you a blessed Lenten Season.