This coming (Ash) Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, most of us would normally have ashes smeared on our foreheads as an outward sign that we wish to spend the next 40 days in Lent coming closer to Christ by performing acts of penance and charity. However, because of the pandemic, we will receive our ashes in the same way that priests ordained in past years receive them – not on the forehead, but with a slight sprinkling on the crown of our head. To accommodate this action, it will be necessary to bow our heads slightly, in a real gesture of true humility. Ash Wednesday is NEVER a Holyday of Obligation.
The significance of ashes serves three key purposes: First, they remind us of our own mortality. As such, they remind us that we are not as important as we often like to think we are. The One who is important is the One who dies no more, the one calls us his friends and true members of his Body. Second, the ashes usually make our allegiance clear to those we meet. They point not to ourselves but to Him who died for us; and they serve as a silent call to reconciliation with God and man. As we receive the ashes, we pray for the grace to conform our lives ever more closely to the will of God, even if it means setting our own will aside. Third, the ashes remind us that if we are to be faithful and effective members of the Body of Christ, our lives must reflect his life. We remember that our life – marked by our sins and our sinful desires – does not always look like the life of the Lord – that we are not clear reflections of his love. For this reason, we seek to rend our hearts before the Lord so that He might wash us clean and (we) become the righteousness of God in Him (II Cor. 5:21).
In the concepts of anticipation and preparation for the Lord Jesus, we find a connection to the practice of fasting and abstinence during Lent. Lent is a time of penance and atonement for sin in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. Fasting and abstinence are integral to that preparation for several reasons, such as building virtue, self-mastery, and helping to avoid sinful tendencies that may ultimately lead to spiritual death in the case of mortal sin.
In the early Church, we find that the Apostles were familiar with fasting, and did so prior to making important decisions to gain divine assistance (Acts 13:2; 14:23). The practice of fasting during Lent finds its origins in our Lord’s journey into the desert where He fasted and prayed for forty days and nights in preparation to begin his public ministry (Matt 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-3). The forty days of Lent are in imitation of Christ’s time in the desert. During Lent, the Christian walks into the desert with Christ and fasts so as to have the strength to avoid temptation with the help of God’s grace. Lent is also a penitential season in which we strive to atone for our sins and purify our lives in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s glorious rising from the tomb on Easter Sunday. In these coming forty days of Lent, may we strive with greater fervor and devotion, through our penance and our increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to seek to model our lives on Christ Crucified. If we imitate Him and strive to perfect our love of God and the love of neighbor, we will be found worthy disciples of Him who is both just and merciful.
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LENTEN REGULATIONS: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the obligatory days of fasting (one full meal a day) and abstinence (no meat or meat by-products) for Catholics. In addition, all Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. For members of the Latin Catholic Church (virtually, all of us), the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. Abstinence pertains to those who have reached their 14thyear, and there is no age limit for ending the obligation of abstinence. To summarize, then:
On Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent: Everyone of age 14 and up must abstain from consuming meat.
On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: Everyone of age 18 to 59 must fast, unless exempt due to usually a medical reason. Have a happy Lent!