Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent – a 40-day period of penance and preparation for the holiest day on the Christian calendar – Easter. This year, Lent begins on Mar. 1. It’s a season revered by Christians worldwide, so for those curious about what exactly goes on, (or if you just want to brush up on your Lent terminology), here’s an overview of the season’s origins, its traditions, and why it’s such an important time for billions of faithful.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish religious figure and preacher who lived in the Roman province of Judea and was born in 4 AD. Christians believe him to be the Son of God as well as the Old Testament prophesied Messiah. Lent focuses on the final aspects of his life in which he was crucified by Roman officials for charges of heresy brought against him by Jewish officials. Through acts of spiritual and physical self-discipline, (such as fasting, abstinence, etc.) the season aims to prepare Christians for Easter in which they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, according to Christian tradition. The season is predominantly observed by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and other evangelical churches (specific traditions within religions, though, may differ).
What it Means
Tradition holds that prior to his death, Jesus underwent a period of immense suffering. He suffered internal conflict, the betrayal of a disciple, and was beaten as well as scourged prior to his crucifixion. Likewise, Christians seek to imitate his suffering through forms of penance in which they either deny themselves bodily pleasures, give alms, or take on additional prayer duties. These acts of self-denial are designed to foster a spirit of repentance which in turn prepares Christians for the long-awaited celebration of Easter. Lent lasts for 40-days in order to commemorate the 40-days in which Jesus wandered and fasted in the desert.
Christian penances take on various forms, though they can all be grouped within three categories. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.” Penance through fasting deals with pious acts of self-denial. The denial of bodily pleasures gives Christians an understanding of what it means to suffer, particularly, to suffer for God. Examples of self-denial include fasting, abstinence (typically from meats and other delicacies), bodily mortification (contemporary examples include pious kneeling, uncomfortable clothing, etc., and more) Secondly, penance through prayer concerns a Christian undertaking additional prayer duties such as the recitation of litanies, rosaries, and more. Lastly, penance through almsgiving deals with giving additional alms to those in need, such as street beggars or charities. In the Catholic Church, the faithful are required to abstain from meat every Friday of the season and additionally fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday in which ashes from the previous year’s palms (see Palm Sunday) are applied to the faithful’s foreheads in the shape of a cross. According to the 1962 Roman Missal, “In the Old Law ashes were generally a symbolic expression of grief, mourning, or repentance…It was originally instituted for public penitents, but is now intended for all Christians, as Lent should be a time of penance for all.” Through Ash Wednesday, the faithful are reminded of Lent’s mournful and penitent nature through the symbolic distribution of Ashes.
The fifth Sunday of Lent (and first Sunday of Passiontide) is observed as Passion Sunday. According to the Roman Missal, “The Mass of Passion Sunday is full of the thought of the Passion of Jesus and the Infidelity of the Jews.” Passion Sunday reminds the faithful of the upcoming Holy Week in which Christ’s Passion is revealed in its fullness.
The final chapter of the Lenten season lies in Holy Week. According to the Catholic Church’s General Decree of Nov. 16, 1955, “Of the weeks in the Church’s year, Holy Week is truly singular for the fullness, majesty, and devotion of the ceremonies.” Holy Week is divided into several distinct days and remembers the Passion of Jesus Christ in which he held his infamous Last Supper with his disciples, was arrested and convicted by the Roman government, then crucified. It’s considered the holiest week on the Christian calendar and is the final Lenten preparation for Easter.
Whether or not one observes Lent, knowledge of the season’s meaning and traditions are beneficial in relating to our world’s large and vibrant Christian populace. And for those who do observe the season, knowledge of its intricacies and requirements are prudent to know should one wish to experience the season in its fullness.