Today, Wednesday, March 6, is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Church’s (and our) 40-day period of fasting, prayer, alms giving and spiritual preparation for the great Easter feast, which this year is April 21.
Our spiritual preparation for Easter begins with ashes on our foreheads and the rather stark reminder that “you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
We receive our ashes as a sign of penance and contrition. It is an old custom with roots in the Old Testament. It was a public acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness and desire for repentance. It was adopted as part of the Church’s Lenten observance in the eighth century.
One of the ways we make penance is by fasting and abstinence. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which this year is April 19, are days of total abstinence from meat. These also are days of fast, which means people are limited to one single full meal. All Fridays of Lent are days of total abstinence from meat, a law that binds all Catholics age 14 and older. The law of fasting binds all Catholics from their 18th year until and including their 59th birthday.
Fasting is also an ancient practice with Old Testament roots. In the book of Joel (2:12), the prophet proclaims, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Luke 5:35). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1438) recommends “voluntary self-denial” such as fasting.
Traditionally, as a sign of penance, Catholics also “give-up” a favorite treat or favorite activity. While that is a good practice, Lent is more than just a season of giving up things.
The spirit of sacrifice that prompts us to “give up” something for Lent is meant to be more than just a pious or traditional practice. This sacrifice should lead us to think more about others. More than just a time of omission, Lent is a season of reaching out to those in need and to truly live the message of the Gospels.
By the way, in the early Church, Lent was observed only for 40 hours, as a symbol of the belief that Jesus’s body was in the tomb for 40 hours. It was celebrated from noon on Good Friday and ended at 3 a.m. on Easter, which was generally believed to be the time that Christ was resurrected from the dead.
In the third century, Lent was extended from 40 hours to six days, thus beginning Holy Week. Later, the six days were extended to 36 days (representing one-tenth of the 365-day year). It was not until the eighth century that four additional days were added to create our current celebration of Lent. The added days were Ash Wednesday, and the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday, running up to the First Sunday in Lent. In the calculation of the 40 days, Sundays are not included.
Forty days seems like a long time to make acts of penance. But, the number 40 has a long Biblical tradition as an appropriate amount of time to make such sacrifices. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:2); Jonah warned Nineveh that it only had 40 days to repent before it would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4); the great prophet Elijah traveled 40 days on Mount Horeb before he found the cave in which he would receive his visions (3 Kings 19:8); Moses’s men spied on the Canaanites for 40 days before they reported that the promise land did indeed flow with milk and honey (Numbers 13:25-26); and Moses spent 40 days with the Lord on the mountain when he received the 10 Commandments (Exodus 34:28).
So, here’s hoping (and praying) that these 40 days will draw us closer to Jesus, help us recognize and amend our sinful ways, and prepare us for the great and glorious resurrection of Our Lord.