Catholicism 101: Ash Wednesday

by Allison R. Shely

 

A Catholic does not, in fact, have to go to Mass on Ash Wednesday. Nevertheless, churches will be packed this Ash Wednesday, March 5, to mark the beginning of Lent. For the Catholic Boston College student only halfway through Spring Break, this may seem like good news. Why fuss with finding a Mass while on vacation? Why worry about getting an awkward blotchy spot in your tan from where the ashes were? What’s the point of this silly ritual?

Lent is the liturgical season stretching from Ash Wednesday across six weeks to the evening of Holy Thursday. Not counting Sundays, this adds up to 40 days. As noted in the Directory on Public Piety and the Liturgy, the Lenten season was originally the final period of preparation before baptism. For those receiving baptism or coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, the season remains as such, but it is now also intended for all the faithful to renew the promises of their own baptism.

 

The ashes received on Ash Wednesday once came from the burned remains of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. As the Directory recalls, ashes have been a symbol of penitence since ancient times. They symbolize the need to convert, to reconcile with neighbor, and to return to God. The actions undertaken as part of penitence are traditionally classed as “prayer, fasting, and good works.”

 

Ash Wednesday, like Good Friday, is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Catholics. A summary of the guidelines: only one full meal can be eaten, with two smaller ones taken to maintain strength; no snacks between meals; no meat, unless it is seafood. Fridays during Lent are also meatless. In addition, since the season of Lent is one of self-restraint and simplicity, a lobster dinner may not be a great substitute for a burger or Steak ‘n’ Cheese from Mac. The Directory points out that fasting is not simply an empty symbol or a crash diet, but “an ‘exercise’ which frees the faithful from earthly concerns so as to discover… ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (cf. Dt 8,3; Mt 4, 4; Lk 4,4; antiphon for the first Sunday of Lent).”

 

Fasting also allows believers to live in solidarity with those who are deprived by circumstance and to save their spiritual and physical resources to aid the needy. It is common practice to fast not merely from food, but also from spiritual distractions and bad habits. Inversely, many people also take up good habits or spiritual exercises, such as attending Mass or saying the rosary daily. As a word of advice, try not to tackle a problem or fault so large that you become discouraged and give up by Thursday. This season is meant to be one of growth, both as individuals and a community of believers.

 

By observing Lent, Catholics aim to strengthen our shared faith in Christ as we walk together towards Calvary and, from there, to the empty tomb.

 

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