As Mardi Gras kicks into high gear in New Orleans, Christians around the world begin the journey of Lent, the 40 days before Easter Sunday.
As a cradle Catholic, Lent has always been a part of my spiritual journey to Easter. You can learn more about the Liturgical Season of Lent at Catholic.org.
Catholics aren't the only people who observe the 40 days before Easter as Lent. The Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican faiths also observe Lent as a time of prayerful preparation for Easter.
What is Fat Tuesday?
The Tuesday before Lent begins is called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. In days of old, people used up lard and other items in their pantries before the season of Lent began since the eating rich foods was restricted during Lent.
Polish Catholics used up lard and eggs on Fat Tuesday by making paczkis, which are donut-like, round, sugar-coated pastries are filled with jelly.
The eating of paczkis has become more popular among people of all cultures in the United States in recent years. Many people celebrate Fat Tuesday as National Pancake Day.
At IHop restaurants across the country, a free short stack of pancakes is given to each person as part of a National Pancake Day fundraiser for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and Shriners Hospitals for Children.
In New Orleans, Carnival season comes to a close on Fat Tuesday with Mardi Gras parades. The word "carnival" comes from the Latin "carne vale" which means "farewell to meat" or "farewell to flesh."
What is Ash Wednesday?
Fasting and abstinence are still a part of Lent. Fasting, the eating of one full meal and two smaller meals as needed with no snacking between meals, is required for those ages 18 to 60 on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Friday before Easter.
All who are age 14 and up are required to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. When I was a child, Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays year round.
Ashes are applied to the forehead in the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are made by burning blessed palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ashes are sprinkled with Holy Water and incensed before being distributed.
As a child, the words, "Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return" were always used as the ashes were placed on my forehead.
In many churches, the words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" are used now to emphasize our call to conversion, repentance and turning to the word of God.
Lenten Reflections Keep Focus on God's Word
Generations of Catholic children observed Lent by giving up candy. Although many Catholics still give up something for Lent, there's also an increased focus on doing good deeds.
If you give up candy or meat, the money you don't spend can give donated to the poor or used to help others. Lent is also a time to increase time spent in prayer.
Many Christians begin each day in prayer, especially during Lent. Sign up for daily Lenten Reflections from Fr. Robert Barron, founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire.
Many Catholic churches, including my home parish, St. Thomas More Catholic Church, distribute "The Little Black Book" before Lent. The pocket-sized booklet contains six-minute meditations from the Passion according to Matthew for each day of Lent.
As Lent begins, Christians everywhere keep their focus on turning away from sin and turning toward God's word. Come join us on our Lenten journey to Easter this year.