The Season of Lent

Let us not look at Lent as a time of restriction, consider it a time of reflection--a sort of six week retreat that helps us to prepare for the most glorious event in the history of Christianity – the death and resurrection of the Son of God

What is the reason for sprinkling ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday? Where do the ashes come from?

Even from centuries before Christ ashes have been a sign of penance. For instance, in the Book of Jonah when Jonah proclaims the coming destruction of Nineveh and the king hears of it, he rises from his throne, lays aside his robe, covers himself in sackcloth and sits in ashes (Jonah 3:6). And when Esther is told by her Uncle Mordecai that she must intervene with the king to save her people, she covers her head with dirt and ashes (Esther 4C:13).

Today one of the phrases that may be said by the priest or minister on Ash Wednesday while sprinkling the ashes on the forehead is: "Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return."

So it should become clear why ashes are imposed on Ash Wednesday. They remind us of our mortality and are a sign that we wish to undertake penance.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are blessed after the Gospel and homily on Ash Wednesday.

What is the Church's official position concerning penance and abstinence from meat during Lent?

In 1966 Pope Paul VI reorganized the Church's practice of public penance in his "Apostolic Constitution on Penance" (Poenitemini). The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law incorporated the changes made by Pope Paul.

To sum up those requirements, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.

Fasting means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equalling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening--depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal.

Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.

According to Father John Huels in The Pastoral Companion (Franciscan Herald Press), abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use margarine and lard.

Huels states that even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning.

Huels gives a norm long used by moral theologians: If in doubt whether a particular food is considered meat, look to the common estimation of persons in the area. Custom is the best interpreter of the law.

Each year in publishing the Lenten penance requirements, the bishops quote the teaching of the Holy Father concerning the seriousness of observing these days of penance. The obligation to do penance is a serious one; the obligation to observe, as a whole or "substantially," the days of penance is also serious.

But no one should be over scrupulous in this regard; failure to observe individual days of penance is not considered serious. Moral theologians remind us that some people are excused from fasting and/or abstinence because of sickness or other reasons.

In his "Apostolic Constitution on Penance," Pope Paul VI did more than simply reorganize Church law concerning fast and abstinence. He reminded us of the divine law that each of us in our own way do penance. We must all turn from sin and make reparation to God for our sins. We must forgive and show love for one another just as we ask for God's love and forgiveness.

The Code of Canon Law and our bishops remind us of other works and means of doing penance:

* prayer
* reading and meditation on the Bible
* acts of self-denial
* almsgiving
* works of personal charity
* Attending Mass daily or several times a week
* praying the rosary
* making the way of the cross
* attending the parish evening prayer service
* teaching the illiterate to read
* reading to the blind
* helping the poor
* visiting the sick and shut-ins
* giving an overworked mother a break by baby-sitting

all of these can be even more meaningful and demanding than simply abstaining from meat on Friday.

Why are there 40 days in Lent?

All of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) tell us that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where he fasted and prayed for 40 days.

Moses led a people through the waters (think "Baptism") of the Red Sea into a desert (a place with no water) for 40 years (Lent lasts 40 days) where their identity was formed as a people (our journey during this Lent should form us into a baptized people following Christ to the Father).

Holy Week

The purpose of Holy Week is to re-enact, relive, and participate in the passion of Jesus Christ.

* Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday), the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.
* Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), the institution of Communion and the betrayal by Judas.
* Good Friday, the arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus Christ.
* Holy Saturday, the Sabbath on which Jesus rested in the grave.

We can reconstruct Holy Week from Scripture:


The disciples arranged for the Passover meal, which took place after sundown. After sundown, it was Friday by Jewish reckoning.

Friday: Preparation Day, the Passover

The day began on what we would call Thursday evening. Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover in the upper room. Judas left during the meal. Jesus and the remaining disciples adjourned to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and the disciples kept falling asleep. Judas arrived and betrayed Jesus, who spent the rest of the night being tried by the Sanhedrin and by Pilate. The following morning, which was still the same day by Jewish reckoning, the Crucifixion took place. Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:55-56, and John 19:31 all inform us that this was Preparation Day, which is the Jewish name for Friday. Mark and John explain that the next day is the Sabbath. Thus Jesus, the Lamb of God, was sacrificed for our sins on Passover, and His blood protects us from the angel of death. Jesus died on the cross and was buried before sunset. So this was first day that Jesus lay in the tomb.

Saturday: the Jewish Sabbath

Jesus rested in the tomb on the Sabbath. According to Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, and Luke 23:56-24:3, the day before the Resurrection was a Sabbath. This is the second day that Jesus lay in the tomb.

Sunday: the first day of the week

On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. It was the first day of the week and the day after the Sabbath, according to Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:56-24:3. John 20:1 says the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week. He does not explicitly say that the previous day was the Sabbath, but there is no room in his narrative for any intervening days. The first day of the week is the Jewish name for Sunday. Sunday is also the eighth day after the creation in Genesis, so Paul describes Jesus Resurrection as the first fruits of the new creation in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23.