“You’ve got dirt on your face.” And with that the person reaches out to wipe what’s left of the ashes on my forehead.
As a child I would get really upset if that happened; but as I got older it stopped being a problem. The ash on the forehead is symbolic, a part of Ash Wednesday which comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance. The ash, made in the shape of the cross, symbolize the dust from which God made us and to which we shall return. I can clean it off if I want (no it is not a sin and I won’t burn in hell) or choose to carry it throughout the day.
The importance lies in repentance, prayer, fasting and abstinence: the Catholic law of abstinence says that Catholics aged 14 and older refrain from meat on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent: forty days of penitence, prayer, fasting and reflection mostly observed by Catholics. If you count it’s actually 46 days, Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (Thursday before Easter) but Sundays are not counted so you have 40 days.
There are often a lot of questions I get each year about Lent: do you fast throughout? You’re not supposed to quarrel during Lent? What are you giving up for Lent? (None of your business.) What is Lent?
Well. Here are seven quick facts about Lent.
- Lent is the period of 40 days before Easter in the Christian calendar. Sundays are not included in the count. It falls on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter Sunday.
- Why 40 days? The number is significant in Jewish-Christian scripture: Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; Jesus spent 40 days of fasting in preparation for his ministry, etc.
- Lent is derived from an Old English word lencten, meaning spring. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.
- Violet is the symbolic color for Lent, with altars, statues and other religious paraphernalia veiled in violet fabric. The color is associated with mourning, which anticipates Christ’s pain and suffering on the cross; and royalty, which celebrates Christ’s resurrection.
- Other days of abstinence from meat include all Fridays during Lent.
- During Lent, the faithful are encouraged to surrender a particular vice, such as smoking or favorite food items, as a reflection of Jesus’ deprivation in the wilderness and test of self-discipline.
- Taking up acts of charity, doing ‘good works’, is another custom during Lent. Most Churches take up a collection to help the poor every week during Lent.
I’m sure there are a lot more intricate questions you may have about Lent so you can ask in the comments or visit www.catholic.org (don’t use google, too many misleading sites out there).