Ash Wednesday and Lent
So you filled up on pancakes and delicious food and cleaned the pantry out of all fats and sugars. Then you went and made sure you confessed your sins to make sure you are properly shriven for Shrove Tuesday. Now you are prepared for the long season of contemplation that is Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday.
Lent is the forty days, not counting Sundays, prior to Easter. The word comes from the Anglo Saxon word “lang”, which referred to the lengthening of days with spring. Forty days was considered a tenth of the year, or a close approximation, so Lent was also called the Tithing Days. This was because the faithful were tithing a tenth of the year to God and the Church. There were other fasting days in the Church calendar, like Advent, but Lent was the most important. Like Advent, the faithful were expected to pray and abstain from weddings, love making, games and unnecessary travel. However, Lent took it a step further.
Fasting was part of the Lenten observance. The amount of fasting was variable until Pope Gregory the Great standardized it to forty days prior to Easter sometime in the late 6th century. The tradition of fasting is taken from the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they shall fast”. Fasting meant, according to Pope Gregory, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” Fish, however, were considered acceptable to eat because they came from the water. This was because in Genesis, “the fish and birds were created to populate the waters and the heavens on the fifth day, and creatures of the earth created on the sixth day” The definition of “fish” became pretty loose, and people were eating sea birds and beaver tails and counting them as fish. Butter, milk, cheese and eggs crept back on the list of approved foods by the 15th century as well.
The rule was also that the day only had one meal, and it could be eaten only in the evening, much like Ramadan celebrated by members of the Muslim faith. However, starting in the 9th century this time was pushed earlier and earlier until in the 15th century the cut off time was midday. An evening “collation” or drink and light snack was also added in the 14th century. Other snacking was strictly prohibited, however, people often had “comfits” of nuts and dates and other candy during the day. Sundays were considered feast days, so all of these rules did not apply.
There were some situations where a person could be exempt from fasting during lent. This could be for sickness, pregnancy or the very old or very young. To be exempt, a person must get a dispensation from the Church…for a small fee. Plenty of money was to be made during lent to get out of fish all the time. Those caught not fasting without an dispensation or doing anything else prohibited during Lent could be subjected to punishments such as whipping or having their teeth pulled.
Lent kicked off with the solemn mass of Ash Wednesday. At this mass, a cross of ashes was made on the parishioners’ forehead. The priest would say “from dust you come and to dust you will return.” The ashes were to have come from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, which had been burned. The symbolism was rich and people left the mark of the ashes on their foreheads the rest of the day. With all this solemnity and fasting, everyone was ready for the big Easter Feast waiting for them at the end of Lent.
So, be sure to contemplate life’s mysteries this lent, but don’t forget to smile because Easter is coming!