ASH WEDNESDAY and the Lenten Season in the Ancient Faith
Eastern Rite [Orthodox Catholicism (Lenten -Paschal)]
and Western Rite [Roman Catholicism and Protestant (Lent – Easter)]
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is officially known as the Day of Ashes. It is a day of repentance, when Christians confess their sins and profess their devotion to God.
- During a Mass, a priest places the ashes on a worshiper’s forehead in the shape of a cross.
- The ceremony, which also can be performed by a minister or pastor, is meant to show that a person belongs to Jesus Christ, and it also represents a person’s grief and mourning for their sins the same sins that Christians believe Jesus Christ gave his life for when he died on the cross.
Ash Wednesday is observed by Western Christianity. Most Latin Rite Roman Catholics observe it, along with certain Protestants like Lutherans, Anglicans, some Reformed churches, Baptists, Nazarenes, Methodists, Evangelicals, and Mennonites
Eastern Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Ash Wednesday, and the Orthodox Great Lent period begins with Clean Monday.
Most Orthodox Christians follow the Byzantine Rite of liturgies that has dominated the Orthodox celebrations since the thirteenth century.
|Triodion Begins||February 09||February 21||February 13||February 05||February 25|
|Saturday of Souls 1||February 22||March 06||February 26||February 18||March 09|
|Meatfare Sunday||February 23||March 07||February 27||February 19||March 10|
|Saturday of Souls 2||February 29||March 13||March 05||February 25||March 16|
|Cheesefare Sunday||March 01||March 14||March 06||February 26||March 17|
|Beginning of Great Lent||March 02||March 15||March 07||February 27||March 18|
|Saturday of Souls 3||March 07||March 20||March 12||March 04||March 23|
|Sunday of Orthodoxy||March 08||March 21||March 13||March 05||March 24|
|Lazarus Saturday||April 11||April 24||April 16||April 08||April 27|
|Palm Sunday||April 12||April 25||April 17||April 09||April 28|
|Holy Friday||April 17||April 30||April 22||April 14||May 03|
|Great and Holy Pascha||April 19||May 02||April 24||April 16||May 05|
|Ascension||May 28||June 10||June 02||May 25||June 13|
|Saturday of Souls 4||June 06||June 19||June 11||June 03||June 22|
|Pentecost||June 07||June 20||June 12||June 04||June 23|
|Apostles Fast Begins||June 15||June 28||June 20||June 12|
|Apostles Fast Duration||14||1||9||17||0|
· Zacchaeus Sunday
|Feb 2||Feb 14||Feb 6||Jan 29||Feb 18|
· Publican & Pharisee
Beginning of the Lenten Tridion
|Feb 9||Feb 21||Feb 13||Feb 5||Feb 25|
· Prodigal Son
|Feb 16||Feb 28||Feb 20||Feb 12||Mar 3|
Sunday of the Last Judgment
|Feb 23||Mar 7||Feb 27||Feb 19||Mar 10|
|Mar 1||Mar 14||Mar 6||Feb 26||Mar 17|
· Beginning of Great Lent
|Mar 2||Mar 15||Mar 7||Feb 27||Mar 18|
· Palm Sunday
|Apr 12||Apr 25||Apr 17||Apr 9||Apr 28|
Beginning of the Pentecostarion
|Apr 19||May 2||Apr 24||Apr 16||May 5|
|May 13||May 26||May 18||May 10||May 29|
|May 28||Jun 10||Jun 2||May 25||Jun 13|
|Jun 7||Jun 20||Jun 12||Jun 4||Jun 23|
· Ss. Peter & Paul Fast Begins
|Jun 15||Jun 28||Jun 20||Jun 12||Jul 1|
|Length of Fast|
|14 days||1 day||9 days||17 days||2 days|
|Apr 12||Apr 4||Apr 17||Apr 9||Mar 31|
Orthodox Ash Wednesday
by Fr. John W Fenton, Assistant to the Vicar General
For all Orthodox Christians,
The Holy Season of Lent begins on the First Sunday in Lent, and the Lenten fast begins a few days prior.
- For Byzantine Orthodox Christians, the First Day of the Great Fast is on the Monday before the First Sunday in Lent; and for Western Orthodox Christians the Lenten fast begins on the Wednesday before, commonly known as Ash Wednesday.
- While both traditions observe a 40 day fast, the different starting dates for the fast are related to how the fast is calculated.
- Early on in the West, the Lenten included every day including Saturdays but never included Sundays. Therefore, in order to achieve 40 days, since the 7th century the Western Orthodox have fast not only for six fully weeks (i.e., 36 days) but also four additional days. Hence, for about 1400 years the Lenten fast in the West has begun on the Wednesday before the First Sunday in Lent.
It is not clear when the Wednesday beginning the Lenten fast began to include the imposition of ashes.
- Originally, the imposition of ashes was one of several public rites required of those penitents who wished to be restored to the church.
- As early as the 4th century, these rites were associated with a 40 day fast. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is too thin to be conclusive.
- What does seem clear is that, by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast.
- In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as “Feria Quarta Cinerum” (i.e., Ash Wednesday).
The ashes that are placed on the heads of the faithful are made from burning the blessed palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
- Parishioners are taught to place these blessed palms behind crucifixes and icons in their homes throughout the year, and then return them to the parish church during the weeks before Ash Wednesday.
- After they are burned, the ashes are then blessed by the priest, usually immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass.
- While they may be distributed outside of the mass or any liturgical service, commonly the faithful receive their ashes immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass.
- As the choir sings various chants, the priest places the ashes on each person while saying, “Remember, man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” (Gen 3.19) These words indicate that the ashes are a sign of mortality, and thereby spiritually call each person to mortify their flesh during the season of Lent through the sacrificial acts of prayer, fasting, almsgiving.
- In fact, the Scripture readings for the Ash Wednesday mass say as much. From the prophet Joel, the faithful hear that they are to return to the Lord with all their heart by means of fasting, weeping, and mourning; and in this way, they rend their hearts and turn to the Lord God.
- Likewise, in the Gospel lesson the Lord admonishes the faithful to fast in order to recall that their hearts are to be fixed not on earthly but heavenly treasures.
For Western Orthodox Christians, the reception of ashes together as a community on the first day of the Lenten fast is a tactilely poignant sign that their fast is not simply the denial of foods, but the ascetic discipline of subduing the passions and putting to death ungodly ways so that they may strive to attain, with repentant joy, not only the great celebration both of the Queen of feasts, but also the heavenly riches and abundant life that await those who remain faithful in word and deed.
Lent is 40 days (46 days for Orthodox Christians) of prayer, fasting, and abstinence in preparation for the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday is important because it marks the start of the Lenten period leading up to Easter, when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
The ashes symbolize both death and repentance. During this period, Christians show repentance and mourning for their sins, because they believe Christ died for them.
When the priest applies the cross of ashes, he says to the worshiper: ““Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He also may say “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
It is not required that a worshiper wear the ashes for the rest of the day, although many Christians choose to do so. However, dining out or doing non-essential shopping are considered inappropriate on Ash Wednesday.
Early Christians in Rome were sprinkled with ashes during Lent, but the Ash Wednesday practice of placing ashes on the forehead of Christians didn’t begin until the Middle Ages.
It was the practice in Rome for penitents and grievous sinners to begin their period of public penance on the first day of Lent in preparation for their restoration to the sacrament of the Eucharist. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. When these practices fell into disuse (8th–10th century), the beginning of the penitential season of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.
In the early Christian church, the length of the Lenten celebration varied, but eventually it began 6 weeks (42 days) before Easter. This provided only 36 days of fasting (excluding Sundays). In the 7th century, 4 days were added before the first Sunday in Lent in order to establish 40 fasting days, in imitation of Jesus Christ’s fast in the desert.
To outsiders, this period of penance and reflection can seem like one of the most austere and “medieval” of Christian practices. But while Lent’s roots are ancient (the regulations about Lent date back to 325 CE) there’s more than a little misinformation surrounding it. It’s not just the religious equivalent of a New Year’s diet.
1. All Christians Celebrate Lent
While in excess of a billion Christians observe Lent each year, not all Christians do. It is observed by Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Methodists. Whole swathes of Protestants don’t observe Lent — Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Latter Day Saints. Many other Protestant denominations recognize Lent, although the extent to which they alter their day-to-day lives varies greatly and is mostly a question of individual conscience. These disciplines include restricting food, giving up luxuries (including, in the 21st century, social media), and engaging in charitable work. Unlike Easter, it’s not a celebration.
Where do the ashes come from?
Traditionally, ashes used on Ash Wednesday are gathered up after palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. They are then blessed before being used in the ceremony.
Palms are used on Palm Sunday in many Christian churches to symbolize Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion. Residents of Jerusalem are said to have waved palm fronds to celebrate his arrival.
2. Lent Commemorates the Death of Jesus
Because Lent begins (usually) with a cross-shaped smudge on the forehead and ends at Easter it’s easy to assume that Lent is about the death of Jesus. Some people even believe that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights before his crucifixion.
This is, in fact, incorrect. Lent is a period of preparation in which Christians remember the life of Jesus through prayer and penance, but it is more directly related to his ministry than his death.
The scriptural impetus for Lent is the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The three earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all state that after his encounter with John the Baptist at the river Jordan, Jesus was led out into the desert by the Spirit (in the Gospel of Mark the Greek reads that Jesus was “kicked out” or “driven” into the desert by the Spirit).
There he spent 40 days and night being tempted by Satan before calling the disciples in Galilee.
New Testament scholars compare the period Jesus spends in the desert to the forty days that Moses spent talking with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus.
In other words, we’re imitating Jesus imitating Moses. Or, put differently, forty days is the standard time period for significant spiritual events.
3. Lent is 40 Days Long
That said, modern Lent isn’t actually forty days long. Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday is actually 46 days.
Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday is forty-four. The reason that people think about it as a forty-day event is that those Christians who observe Lent don’t count Sundays.
Sundays are celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus they are automatically considered days of joy and cannot be considered days of fasting. Which does mean that, technically, those who are “giving up” things for Lent can break their fasts on Sundays, although the Church does not promote the idea of “cheat days.”
4. Universal Catholics Give Up Meat During Lent
If there is one thing Lent is known for it’s fasting. It has a reputation for being a period of self-restraint, particularly when it comes to food. So much so that priests will regularly tell parishioners that Lent is not just an excuse to diet.
One of the biggest myths about Lent is that Catholics can’t eat meat, but this is only partially true.
According to the canons of the Catholic Church, all Catholics over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. Failure to observe this is sinful unless you have a good excuse (sickness, pregnancy, breast feeding, extreme manual labor, etc).
Interestingly, if you’re attending a meal and cannot avoid eating without causing your host and fellow guests’ embarrassment then you are permitted to break your fast. Everyone over the age of 18 is required to fast on the same days.
Technically, fasting and abstaining are not the same thing: fasting means restricting the amount of food you eat (usually to one main and two small meals). Abstinence, when applied to meat (or, sex or anything else for that matter) means giving that thing up entirely.
This doesn’t mean that fasting and abstaining from meat are easy to do: some scholars have hypothesized that during the medieval period (when regulations were tougher) women would breastfeed for longer than necessary so that they could avoid fasting during Lent.
Content compiled by:
++Joshua Paul – C.E.O.
“Cross Denominational Kingdom Builders’ Ministerial Alliance”
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