Catholics: History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent
On Wednesday, over a billion Catholics around the world will celebrate Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent in the faith, without any idea of the history or meaning behind the celebration. While Catholicism seems to be the religion that most people identify Lent and Ash Wednesday with, the truth of the matter is that many other Christian religions celebrate these as well, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Many may have an idea what Lent is all about, but few know its origins and true purpose.
While the true origin of the practice is not known, there are many writings from the third and fourth centuries that speak of a period of fasting leading up to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early practice of the custom seemed to be centered around the baptizing of persons on Easter. Christians would fast for the forty days leading up to Easter, as a preparation for being baptized. Fasting, in this manner, was seen as an act of “mortification” to reach God. Later, the practice seemed to move from a focus on baptism, to a time of repentance for those who “sinned seriously.” Those who fell into this category would perform public penance for 40 days leading up to Holy Thursday, and then would join the community in a feast to celebrate this Christian feast.
The choice of 40 days seems to have stemmed from the story told to us in the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew, where Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. Those who participated in Lent were to fast, as Jesus had, for 40 days, and then return to the community to celebrate the Easter feast and/or to be baptized.
The earliest documentation related to Lent dates back to the third century. In the writings of Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, he writes a letter to the Basilides to address the length of Lent. At the Council of Nicea, convened by the Emperor Constantine, in 325 CE, there was a discussion of a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, but no one knows exactly when the practice officially began. The Council does confirm the idea that Lent’s original purpose was to prepare for baptism.
The actual starting date of Lent and how long it went on has been a topic of much debate throughout the church’s history. In the Eastern Orthodox church, fasting only occurred on weekdays, thus Lent lasts for 8 weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. In the Western Churches, Saturday is included in the fast, which reduces the Lenten period by one week.
In the early church, St. Anthanasius tells us in a letter that he wrote to smaller churches in his area (332 CE) that Lent was to begin on the fifth day of Phamenoth, or March 1 in our current calendars. In the last seven days of Lent, Holy Week began, and Easter would be on the tenth day of Pharmuthi (April 11). This was the custom throughout much of the Roman Empire for centuries.
Lent is now determined in relation to when Easter will be celebrated. Easter is determined as the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox occurs on March 21, according to the calendar we use today. This is how the Jewish Passover is determined as well (with the exception of it being on a Sunday), and Christiantity has followed this practice. Lent then goes backwards 40 days from this date, excluding Sundays, which are counted as feast days. On Sundays, Catholics are not expected to fast. The Eastern Church goes back 40 days, excluding Saturdays and Sundays.
Now that Catholics and other Christians know something of how Lent began, and the meaning behind it, there is still a need to know how Ash Wednesday got started. Until the seventh century, the first day of Lent always began on a Sunday, but in 601 AD, Pope Gregory (the Great) changed the days to begin on a Wednesday, and implemented the removal of Sundays in counting the duration of Lent. Instead, he changed Sundays to feast days. He then called the beginning of Lent Ash Wednesday. It appears that Gregory even determined the practice of marking people’s foreheads with crosses made of ashes as a symbol of repentance. He equated the practice to the Old Testament custom of wearing sackcloth and ashes during a time of incredible grieving or repentance.
Up until the 800s, most Christians were not allowed to eat anything during Lent, with the exceptions of Sundays. Water was only allowed during this time. Sometime during the 800s this practice changed, however. People were then allowed to eat after 3 pm, and in the 1400s people could eat after noon. In 1966, during the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church restricted fasting to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The practice of abstaining from meat first came into practice during the 800s. Meat was considered a food of the wealthy, and so Christians were called to fast from it, as a show of poverty before God. This practice has laxed over the years, and now Catholics must only abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
Many Catholics, and other Christian faiths will be celebrating Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent tomorrow, with very little idea of the history or meaning behind these two celebrations. Hopefully they will now be a little more informed.
Editorial by Robert Pannier