Online Edition –
Vol. VI, No. 10 – February 2001
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast
"The main current of Lent must flow through the interior man, through hearts and consciences. The essential effort of repentance consists in this. In this effort the human determination to be converted to God is invested with the predisposing grace of conversion and, at the same time, of forgiveness and of spiritual liberation".
This reflection by Pope John Paul II in Lent of 1979, recorded in a collection of his meditations, The Light of Christ, indicates the attitude with which we should approach our observance of this penitential season — a season which begins with a sign of repentance so ancient as to be almost lost in antiquity, and continues with penitential action equally ageless.
Putting ashes on our heads as a form of penitence is a practice inherited from Jewish tradition. In Old Testament times, fast days expressed sorrow for sins and the desire to make atonement to the Father. Ashes, for Jews and Christians alike, are a sign of repentance, sorrow, and mourning. The King of Nineveh believed the prophecy of Jonah and fasted forty days wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes to save the city, and ordered the people to do so, too [Jonah 3:4-10]. Jeremiah calls Israel to "wallow in ashes" of repentance [Jeremiah 6:26]. Abraham speaks of being unworthy to speak with God because he is "but dust and ashes" [Gen 2:7] – being man, he is created from dust. Jesus also refers to this symbol in Matthew 11:21, "Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes".
The ashes imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our unworthiness and sinfulness — sinfulness that corrupts and stains us and leads to death (we return to the dust from whence we came). Ashes remind us of our original sin and our need of redemption — of our need to be cleansed of sin and made worthy of Salvation. This is why the priest says, as he imposes ashes on our foreheads, "Remember, O Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return". [Genesis 3:19].
We cannot appreciate God’s infinite mercy if we do not realize we need mercy. We cannot understand salvation apart from our recognition of our need to be saved, rescued, from something namely our sin, which otherwise separates us forever from God. Ashes remind us of this need. When we wear the ashes on our heads, we also acknowledge the sacrifice of Christ, who forever substituted His own death for the "burnt offerings" made by Old Testament priests to atone for the sins of the people.
On Jewish fast days, or days of atonement, the penitent customarily wore sackcloth (burlap), placed ashes on his head, and went barefoot. These traditions associated with penance continued to be observed by the early Christians, although Jesus warned against ostentatious public displays of penance [see Matthew 6:16-18].
In the New Testament, fasting had similar significance, but fast times were also a time of intensified prayer and willingness to abide by the will of Christ and the Father who sent Him.
We also fast because of our sorrow at the loss of the Lord: "The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away, and then shall they fast" [Luke 5:33-35]; also because of our intention of giving our Christian life more depth and more seriousness of purpose. Pope Leo the Great says in his forty-second sermon: "While men are distracted by the many cares of life, their religious hearts are necessarily defiled by the dust of the world". We also fast because of the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter: for the renewal of our baptismal vows, and for Easter Communion
According the Didache, a second-century record of early Christian beliefs and practices, Christians were to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Emphasis on seasonal fasting became more pronounced in the second and third centuries when a more strict fast was observed from Good Friday until Easter. Eventually this shorter fast developed into the forty-day fast.
In 1099, Pope Urban II called the first day of Lent Feria quarta cinerum or Ash Wednesday. During the early centuries of the Church, only persons who had committed grave sins received ashes and were asked to do public penance, which usually lasted until Holy Thursday when they were reconciled to the Church through confession and the reception of Holy Communion. The custom, as early as the fourth century, was to "quarantine" (from the word for "forty") or separate the penitents from the rest of the community during the forty days of Lent. Ashes were a sign of this separation. The penitential quarantine applied to poor and rich alike.
Fasting and Penance Today
In the same Lenten message quoted above, Pope John Paul II said,
"Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy. Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth. Contemporary man seems to have lost, to some extent, the flavor of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one’s interior being. Civilization — especially in the West — closely connected as it is with the development of science and technology, catches a glimpse of the need for intellectual and physical effort. But he has lost the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is man seen in his inner self. The whole period of Lent — since it is a preparation for Easter — is a systematic call to this joy that comes from the effort of patiently finding oneself again. Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort".
The Code of Canon Law states that Fridays throughout the year and in the time of Lent are penitential days for the entire Church. Although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction, in the Church, between a fast (limiting food to one full meal and two small meals a day) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat). Abstinence from meat on Fridays as the universal form of penance on all Fridays is no longer mandatory. We may choose another way of observing the Church’s requirement for acts of penance on Fridays.
Some people have become confused about the requirement to observe penitential days. As a result, the discipline of fasting (or abstaining from meat) or any form of regular penance has all but disappeared.
Both fast and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The rules of the Church in the United States in effect since 1966 state:
"Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole" (ref. Canons 1249-1253, Code of Canon Law).
The purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity that joins us to Christ an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice. Fasting can heighten our understanding of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and of our total dependence on His love and mercy.
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