I will be updating this post often as I find more articles to add. If anyone has any questions, just let me know.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q #1: What is Ash Wednesday?
A: From the Pocket Catholic Dictionary, we read:
- ASH WEDNESDAY. The first day of Lent. Named from the custom of signing the foreheads of the faithful with blessed ashes. Its date depends on the date of Easter. In the early Church, public penitents were liturgically admitted to begin their penance on this day. And when this fell into disuse, from the eighth to the tenth centuries, the general penance of the whole community took place. This was symbolized by the imposition of ashes on the heads of the clergy and laity alike.
Q #2: Why put ashes on your forehead?
A: From the EWTN liturgical calendar, we read:
- The liturgical use of ashes originated
in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and
penance. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when
he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus to kill all of the Jewish
people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6).
Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, "I
turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting,
sackcloth, and ashes" (Daniel 9:3).
Jesus made reference to ashes, "If the miracles worked in you had taken
place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and
ashes long ago" (Matthew 11:21).
In the Middle Ages, the priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, "Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." The Church adapted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, "Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."
As we begin this holy season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received: We mourn and do penance for our sins. We again convert our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. We renew the promises made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in heaven.
Q #3: When we put a cross of ashes on our head, aren't we disobeying the words of Christ when he said, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven"?
A: These words of Christ come from His advice on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (the three duties of Lent) in Mt 6:1-18. His main point is that these forms of piety should not be done so as to receive glory from men. The purpose, instead, is to give glory to God and to grow closer to Him.
It is true that when we put ashes on our head, we will definitely "be seen by men." But, that is not why we do it. We do it because it is a reminder to us and to the world that we come from dust, and to dust we shall return (cf. Gen 3:19). We should always keep the fact of our mortality and our contingency at the forefront of our mind. We live holier lives when we inform all of our decisions by the simple truth that we all must die. The cross itself is a symbol of the death of Jesus Christ and of our own necessity to die to self so that we may rise with Him to new life. As the answer to Q #4 has already stated, we also put ashes on our forehead because ashes are a symbol of mourning and penance.
Basically, we do not do our deeds to be seen by men, like the scribes and Pharisees did (cf. Mt 23:1-7). Our boast is not in ourselves, but in the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 1:31).
Q #4: Why is there no holy water on Ash Wednesday (or throughout Lent)?
A: While many parishes are known to remove holy water during Lent, this is in fact not allowed. From the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith we have the following correspondance:
- Prot. N. 569/00/L
March 14, 2000
This Congregation for Divine Worship has received your letter sent by fax in which you ask whether it is in accord with liturgical law to remove the Holy Water from the fonts for the duration of the season of Lent.
This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:
- The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.
- The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The "fast" and "abstinence" which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).
Hoping that this resolves the question and with every good wish and kind regard, I am,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Mons. Mario Marini
Question #5: What is Lent?
Answer: From the Pocket Catholic Dictionary, we read:
- LENT. The season of prayer and penance before Easter. Its purpose is to better prepare the faithful for the feast of the Resurrection, and dispose them for a more fruitful reception of the graces that Christ merited by his passion and death.
In the Latin Rite, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for forty days, besides Sundays, until Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday occurs on any day from February 4 to March 11, depending on the date of Easter.
Originally the period of fasting in preparation for Easter did not, as a rule, exceed two or three days. But by the time of the Council of Nicaea (325) forty days were already customary. And ever since, this length of time has been associated with Christ's forty-day fast in the desert before beginning his public life.
According to the prescription of Pope Paul VI, in revising the Church's laws of fast and abstinence, "The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of Great Lent, according to the diversity of rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely" (Paenitemini, III, norm II).
Besides fast and abstinence on specified days, the whole Lenten season is to be penitential, with stress on prayer, reception of the sacraments, almsgiving, and the practice of charity. (Etym. Anglo-Saxon lengten, lencten, spring, Lent.)
Q #6: Where did we get the word "Lent"?
A: From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we read:
- Lent: short for Lenten, from Old English lencten "spring," the season, from West Germanic *langa-tinaz (cf. Old Saxon lentin, Middle Dutch lenten, Old High German lengizin manoth), from *lanngaz (root of Old English lang "long") + *tina-, a root meaning "day" (cf. Gothic sin-teins "daily"), cognate with Old Church Slavonic dini, Lithuanian diena, Classical Latin dies "day." The compound probably refers to the increasing daylight. Church sense of "period between Ash Wednesday and Easter" is peculiar to English.
Q#7: Why is Lent 40 days?
A: Lent is 40 weekdays because in Scripture we see that a time of 40 typically precludes a new birth or renewal of some kind. Noah was in the ark 40 days before life could begin again on earth. Moses was on Mt. Sinai 40 days before he brought the people the 10 Commandments. The Israelites wondered in the desert 40 years before entering the Promised Land. And, of course, Jesus fasted in the desert 40 days before beginning His ministry. So, following in their footsteps, we spend 40 days in preparation for the resurrection and the life that Easter brings.
Q#8: Why do Catholics "give something up" for Lent? Is this something I'm required to do?
Beyond fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on every Friday during Lent, Catholics will often choose something to give up, or refrain from doing. While not strictly required, this is a good way to embrace the penitential character of the season.
Some people take this opportunity to overcome bad habits, like biting your nails, or smoking, or cursing. Others will give up something they enjoy (like ice cream, or television, or Facebook) in order to have a small sacrifice to offer to the Lord. Whatever you do during Lent to unite yourself to the “Suffering Servant” is a good and laudable thing. One should also keep in mind that Lent is just as much about taking on positive actions (like prayer, alms giving, works of mercy, etc.) then it is about the negative actions of avoiding things.
Q #9: What does it mean to "fast"?
A: From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we read:
- fast (v.): Old English fæstan "to fast" (as a religious duty), from Proto-Germanic *fastejan (cf. Old Frisian festia, Old High German fasten, Old Norse fasta), from the same root as fast (adj.). The original meaning was "hold firmly," and the sense evolution is via "firm control of oneself," to "holding to observance" (cf. Gothic fastan "to keep, observe," also "to fast"). Presumably the whole group is a Germanic translation of Medieval Latin observare "to fast."
- Fasting. The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.
Q #10: What does it mean to "abstain"?
A: From Colin B. Donovan, STL, we read:
- The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Moral theologians have traditionally considered this also to forbid soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatin which do not have any meat taste.
On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops conference obtained the permission of the Holy See for Catholics in the US to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing. Since this was not stated as binding under pain of sin, not to do so on a single occasion would not in itself be sinful. However, since penance is a divine command, the general refusal to do penance is certainly gravely sinful. For most people the easiest way to consistently fulfill this command is the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year which are not liturgical solemnities. When solemnities, such as the Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints etc. fall on a Friday, we neither abstain or fast.
During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere, and it is sinful not to observe this discipline without a serious reason (physical labor, pregnancy, sickness etc.).
For more on fasting and abstinence, see Life in the "Fast" Lane.
- Liturgical Calendar: Ash Wednesday
- New Advent: Ash Wednesday
- Wikipedia: Ash Wednesday
- Modern Catholic Dictionary: Blessed Ashes
- The Origins of Ash Wednesday
- Ash Wednesday Emphasizes that Life is a Prilgrimage
- A Lenten Prayer: Restore Us As a Culture of Life
- JPII Homilies on Ash Wednesday: 1996 -- 1997 -- 1999 -- 2000 -- 2001 -- 2002 -- 2003 -- 2004
- On the Road!
- The Love of Christ Urges Us On!
- God Is Love and His Love Is the Secret of Our Happiness
- Ash Wednesday Q&A by Jimmy Akin
- Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of Easter Feasts
- Carnival and Ashes
- Ash Wednesday and Our Shifting Understanding of Lent
- Ash Wednesday Letter
- The Day After Fat Tuesday
- 5 Simple Ways to Share Your Faith on Ash Wednesday
- The 3 Basics of Ash Wednesday
- The Lenten Workshop
- Information about Lent
- Lenten Prayers and Hymns
- Lenten Activities
- A Personal Program
- Stations of the Cross
- Holy Week
- New Advent: Lent
- Annual Lent Fight
- All About Lent
- Lent and Easter: A Sourcebook for Families
- The History of Lent
- The Mystery of Lent
- The Practice During Lent
- Lent: A Time for Forgiveness and Reconciliation
- Lent Should Be Lived in the Likeness of Christ
- Penance Implies True Conversion of Heart
- On the Covering of Crosses and Images During Lent
- Picking the Day Lent Begins
- Meditations and Prayers for Easter and Lent
- Resources for Lent
- Exploring Lent
- Fasting, Abstinence, and Self-Denial in Lent
- Lent: Turning Back Towards God
- Lenten Music
- The Practice of Lenten Practices
- Lent Central [Lenten homilies from Pope Benedict XVI and Fr. Daren Zehnle]
- Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself
- Lent and "Our Father": The Path of Prayer
- Living Simply During Lent
- FAQ's on Lenten Practices
- FAQ's on the Lenten Season
- Lent: Discipline and History
- Daily Penance, Days of Penance
- Is There a "Rite" Time?: On Baptisms During Lent
- Lenten Traditions in the Home
- Our Sunday Visitor's Guide to Holy Week
- Walking with Jesus Christ Through the Week Called Holy
- Embracing the Lenten Season as a Family
- Lenten Challenges
- "I Promise to Do Penance": Lenten Observances
- Lent: Sharing in the Obedience of Jesus
- Why Is Lent 40 Days?
- A Season to Fight Temptation
- A Lenten Instruction Manual for Catholic Men
- Don't Waste Lent
- The Relentless Grittiness of Lent
- Six Ways to Evangelize During Lent
- 10 Things to Remember for Len
- Give It Up!
- Daily Penance, Days of Penance
- Rise, and Do Not Be Afraid
Stations of the Cross (a popular devotion during Lent):
- How Did the Stations of the Cross Begin?
- Way of the Cross
- The Family and the Cross
- John Henry Cardinal Newman: The Stations of the Cross
- John Paul II: Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum
- Short Meditations on the Stations of the Cross
- Exposition During Stations of the Cross
- Via Crucis: Mirror of the Cross
- The Way of the Cross
- Hope for All Springs from the Cross of Christ
- The Cross Is Victory and Salvation
- May Jesus Become Our Traveling Companion
- This Is the Wood of the Cross: Come Let Us Worship
- Eucharistic Stations of the Cross
- Candelabrum for Stations of the Cross
- Stations of the Cross at Home
- Stabat Mater (At the Cross Her Station Keeping)
- The True Cross
- Why Do the Stations of the Cross?
- How to Do the Stations of the Cross
- Mary Takes Us Through the Stations of the Cross
- Wikipedia: Stations of the Cross
- Stations of the Cross: With Reflections by Mother Angelica
- Stations of the Cross for Children
- Virtual Stations of the Cross
My Blog Posts
- Parce Domine: Spare Your People, O Lord
- The Way of the Cross
- Lent and the Sunday "Loophole"
- Distractions in Prayer
- On Spiritual "Dryness"
- Prayer as a Battle
Some of these posts were not originally written for the season of Lent, but they still pertain to the spirit and themes of the season and what we struggle with as we prepare for the Resurrection of the Lord.