It's Ash Wednesday as I write this column, and despite abstaining from meat, dairy, and egg products today, I've got egg all over my face! Why is that? Well, for years I have argued that a Catholic Pope would never, EVER resign due to advanced age or illness. This week, Pope Benedict XVI did exactly that, and announced his resignation would be effective on February 28th. This Ash Wednesday was particularly memorable and bittersweet for Catholics, because it was Benedict's final public Mass as Pope.
Lent has come very early this year, and it seems like only yesterday we were still in the Christmas season. For most Roman Catholics, February 13th might seen pretty early to start Lent, but look on the bright side. Our Eastern Orthodox brethren, as well as eastern Catholics, actually started Lent two days earlier (Feb. 11th this year). Clean Monday (or "Ash Monday") is the first day of Lent in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, while Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent for nearly all Roman Catholics, and most mainline Reformed and Protestant traditions. One very small group of Roman Catholics actually have no event which kicks off lent: there is no Ash Wednesday (or Clean Monday for that matter) in the Ambrosian Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. For them, Lent begins liturgically on the first Sunday in Lent, and fasting begins on the first Monday of Lent. But the Ambrosian Rite is only practiced among around five million Catholics in the greater part of the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy, so Chicago area Catholics can rest assured that Ash Wednesday isn't going away anytime soon around here.
Some of my faithful readers may wonder where all this got started. Who came up with Ash Wednesday? Who came up with Lent? Why do the dates change from year to year? Why do some Christians mark the beginning of Lent with ashes, while others do not? Well, prepare to read on.
The answer to where Ash Wednesday originates from is... we really don't know. The practice of repentance and mourning with ashes certainly dates from the Bible and is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21. However, how it came to be associated with Lent, we'll apparently never discover. Ash Wednesday was not observed by Jesus, the original apostles, nor any in the early Church. The first clearly datable reference for using ashes during liturgy is a mention of sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960 A.D. Ashes had been used in Christian ceremonies before that, but not in Masses or liturgical traditions. (for example, as early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite used a ritual of signing a person's forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents) Still, it wasn't until the 11th century that all faithful Christians took part in an imposition of ashes ceremony on Wednesday during the start of Lent. Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Even then, it wasn't until centuries later that the day officially became known as Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church, and marked accordingly on Catholic liturgical calenders. In the 12th century, the tradition of creating the ashes by burning palm branches from the previous years' Palm Sunday was developed, and became universally embraced shortly afterward.
Lent itself is a much older and well documented tradition in Christianity. It seems to date back all the way to the earliest days of Christianity, where Christians would solemnly count down the forty days before Resurrection Sunday, to mark the importance of the event. It really becomes crystal clear how Lent was practiced once Christianity was legalized and Christians were unafraid to write down this information. In Canon 5 of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), we find the Greek phrase "tessarakostys", which means "before the fortieth", as the summit of a forty-day fast, possibly used a countdown to Easter. St. Athanasius (died 373 A.D.) makes a clear reference to Lent in one of his festal letters, speaking of a 40-day Fast beginning the sixth week before Easter and including Holy Week, which he specifically calls "Holy Paschal Week"
Today, a huge culture has developed around the world when it comes to preparing for Lent, and it has many different names and traditions depending on one's religious tradition and where one is from. The pre-Lenten period is known variously the Carnival period, Mardi Gras, Swabian-Alemannic-Fastnacht, Maslenitsa, Pancake Day, Baklahorani, Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, and Paczki Day. Among eastern Christians, (including Eastern Catholics) there is also Meatfare Sunday and Cheesefare Sunday, respectively, to mark the final two days in which these foods are eaten before Lent.
Paczki Day is one of the more popular traditions around the Chicago area, perhaps due to the large number of Polish immigrants in the area. These eastern European pastries have become popular with Chicagoans due to the Polish influence and marketing by the bakery industry, and now commonly found around bakeries and supermarkets in Chicago and Northern Illinois, Northwest Indiana and Southeastern Wisconsin, leading up to Lent.
Other traditions leading up to Lent are virtually unheard of in Chicago. For example, In Lebanon and Syria, the last Thursday before Lent, Catholics traditionally celebrate "Khamis el sakara" (in English, "Thursday of Remembering") where they indulge themselves with alcoholic drinks, since alcohol and cooking oils are traditionally forbidden during Lent -- and raw, unprocessed food is eaten.
During the early Middle Ages, it was common for Catholics to abstain from all meat (meaning "beast or fowl"), eggs and dairy products during Lent. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that "they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish]", and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available, and thus "a great incentive to lust." Today, the fasting is not nearly as strict in the Catholic Church as it was in the past, but can take up a significant portion of the calendar year if the traditional fast is followed.
It should be noted that according to Catholic Lenten traditions, fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving (donating to a local charity, or directly to the poor, depending on circumstances). To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful to Catholics. The idea of fasting is not to suffer, but to help the individual to focus more on their spiritual life, and guard against frivolous thoughts, deeds and words
Since Lent is a penitential season, in many Roman Catholic traditions (as well as in many Lutheran and Anglican churches) the priest's vestments are violet or purple throughout the season. (On the fourth Sunday in Lent, rose-colored (pink) vestments may be worn in lieu of violet). Lenten observances are always maintained until the Easter Vigil -- although since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has redefined Good Friday into Holy Saturday as the first two days of the Easter Triduum rather than the last two days of Lent. The Stations of the Cross is also one of the most common devotions that Roman Catholics observe and follow during the Lenten season, as this practice helps us remember the events that led up to Jesus taking up the Cross, and of his execution.
Since we know in advance that this Lenten season is the final one under the guidance of Pope Benedict XVI, it takes on an added significance as Catholics in both Chicago and around the world look to the election of a new Pope for the Easter season. We must pray it will be someone strong and wise to lead Catholics in the difficult days that lay ahead. Lent 2013 is officially here and it's time for Catholics to step up their game! So, what are you doing this year?