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Ash Wednesday: Let Us Enter Into Lent

By F. K. Bartels
February 17th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Catholics will participate in Ash Wednesday Service where they will be told to 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel' and be signed on the forehead with ashes.

GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online) - Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, a season that ends at the start of the Mass of the Lord´s Supper in the evening on Holy Thursday. During this penitential season, we are reminded to give of ourselves and unite with the suffering Christ. We meditate on the pain our Lord endured for our sake, on the manner in which "they took Jesus" and made him carry the "cross himself" to a place called Golgatha, where "they crucified him." (cf. Jn 19:17-18).

We too follow our Savior: we go up to the Place of the Skull; we watch as those nails we helped to supply are driven into his hands and feet; we stand at the foot of the Cross, as did Jesus´ Mother (cf. Jn 19:25). We look upon our Lord; we see his pain; we notice the wood soaked in His blood; we cry. We kneel and await that moment when a sword will pierce Christ´s side that his saving blood and water will flow over us.

The word Lent is from the Anglo-Saxon "lencten" (spring). Historically, Lent was a final preparation period for catechumens who were being initiated into the Catholic Church, and who would soon experience full communion with the Church God willed should exist as they were brought into the Paschal mystery at the Easter Vigil.

In time, Lent became a renewal period for the already baptized faithful as they witnessed the fervent conversion of the catechumens. Today, Lent is a forty-day period in which the whole Catholic Church enters into a time of penance, preparation, and spiritual renewal.

During Lent, Catholics prepare for the resurrection of our Master, Teacher, King and Savior which we will celebrate on Easter. Around the world, in parishes large and small, millions of Catholics will participate at Ash Wednesday Mass, where they will listen to the word of God, receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, after being told to "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel", will be signed on the forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross.

The placing of ashes on the head has as its origin the penitential practices of the Hebrew people who also wore sackcloth as a means of expressing repentance (Jonas 3:5-9; Jer 6:26; 25:34). While at first the ritual of ashes was not directly connected with the beginning of Lent, as early as the fourth century it was adopted into the disciplinary practice of temporarily excluding public sinners from the community who were guilty of grave public sins in order to foster their repentance and return.

By the seventh century the custom of ashes had expanded into an Ash Wednesday liturgical ritual in many churches. Traditions similar to those in today´s parishes were observed throughout the Church by the eleventh century.

Ash Wednesday marks a profound moment of decision and invitation to change for Catholics. "By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert" (CCC No. 540). We are united to Christ as we engage in our spiritual journey of penance, a road we travel not by ourselves but along with Christ as we follow him into the quiet, dry and tranquil desert.

We too travel among the sand and emptiness and through prayer and fasting, we can be drawn more closely to the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6), the One for whom we thirst. It is in the desert that, when the life-giving Rain falls from the heavens, fresh colors blossom forth and flowers of all kinds flourish within the soul.

A temptation that often presents itself is one which labors to convince us that fasting, penance, and self-denial are merely unimportant and antiquated practices of past. We think we are no longer in need of these things, for we are "enlightened". We begin to tell ourselves we are loved "just as we are", and that further repentance, conversion and spiritual growth are unnecessary. These types of ideas, of course, come from the same Tempter which attacked Christ in the desert (cf. Mt. 4).

The call to holiness is an integral part of the Baptismal vocation. Conversion is a process which invites our continued response and cooperation with grace. Our Lenten observance is a part of our response to that call. The penitential practices of this Holy season include fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Jacques Douillet, in his book titled "What Is A Saint?" writes: "There is no holiness without mastery of the body. There is no holiness if the way of the Cross be avoided. That cross is not there simply once, on the day of baptism; it is always there, a fixture, so that the faithful man or woman, the fidelis, goes on crucifying nature with all its passions and impulses."

Fasting and abstinence were venerable traditions among the Jews, and such practices were familiar to Jesus Christ and his apostles. Jesus was "led by the Spirit into the desert" and "fasted for forty days and forty nights" (Mt. 4:2). We should note that it was the Spirit who led Christ into the desert to pray and fast: thus we too should be attentive to the prompting of the Spirit during Lent. And, in Matt. 6:16, the Lord reminds us of the importance of fasting, telling us that our Father will repay us for our sacrifices.

In Acts 13:2, we find that the apostles engaged in self-denial: "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting" the Holy Spirit spoke to them. Moreover, Paul and Barnabas appointed presbyters for the disciples in "each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith" (Acts 14:23).

When we read the writings of the saints we find they regularly fasted and engaged in acts of mortification and self-denial. By voluntary penance they sought to gain mastery over disordered passions. In this way, St. Thomas More´s hair shirt trained him for the martyrdom that would one day be offered him. Fasting is also a sign that we love God above all else. As we meet our Love of loves in self-denial, we empty ourselves to be filled with Him.

Our compassionate God often supports us with special graces in our voluntary mortification. St. Simeon cultivated a profound love for God when, during Lent, he chose to fast from all food and drink for forty days, a practice he began in his youth and continued the rest of his life. And St. Antony, after selling all his belongings and giving himself over to an ascetic life with Christ, experienced severe temptations. What was his solution? He sometimes fasted from all food for days on end, and often slept on the bare ground.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days which require both fasting and abstinence. Other Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence only. Note that every Friday throughout the year is a penitential day (cf. Can. 1250). On fast days, Catholics are careful to take only one full meal each day, with no food taken between meals.

On days of abstinence, Catholics take no meat (fish is allowed) or meat by-products. Those who have completed their fourteenth year (the day after one´s fourteenth birthday) are obliged to abstain; while those who have completed their eighteenth year are obliged to both fast and abstain when required.

Those who have attained the beginning of their sixtieth year are no longer required to fast (Can. 1252). The substantial observance of the laws of fasting and abstinence is a grave obligation. The Christian faithful are also to devote themselves in a special way to prayer, and perform works of piety and charity (cf. Can. 1249).

Those who sincerely desire to cultivate their closeness to the Beloved take acts of penance seriously. Lent is particularly appropriate for these spiritual exercises. As we engage in self-denial, the body is trained, the will is strengthened, and spiritual hunger is increased.

"The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church´s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)" (CCC No. 1438).

Let us, this Lent, prepare by fasting and self-denial so that we may open ourselves to "the spiritual understanding of the economy of salvation as the Church´s liturgy reveals it" (cf. CCC No. 1095). Let us go into the quiet desert with Christ that we may better recognize his mission of salvation; that we may understand more fully what it really means to be Christian; that we may live in the light of faith, truly see, and understand what we are to do.

"From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Mt. 16:21). During Lent we too must go the way of sacrifice, carrying our cross toward the Place of the Skull where, with trusting love and obedience, we kneel along with our Blessed Mother before Christ crucified. And, like the holy Virgin, may we open our hearts in complete submission to God´s loving will of unfathomable Light.

In that moment before the Cross, tears rain down; yet they soon give way to joy, for the resurrection of our Lord is at hand.

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F. K. Bartels is managing editor of catholicpathways.com. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.

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