Friday, March 11, 2011
What IS it about Lent?
A parishioner recently asked these questions:
"Educate one of your sheep. I have no Catholic background and have no understanding of the significance of Ash Wednesday.
Why do we celebrate Ash Wednesday?
What do the ashes mean? (dust to dust, ashes to ashes) or something else?
What does Lent signify? Is it something specific in the Bible? Or is the 40-day period merely building on the 40 days Jesus wandered in the desert and was tempted by the devil?
Why no alleluias during Lent?"
I thought these were great questions, and probably questions many of us wonder about. Here is my reply:
Lent began sometime in the fourth century CE, as a period of preparation for adult baptisms at Easter. It also became a time of repentance for people who had been very bad and had been separated from the worshipping community because of their actions. The penitent people were sprinkled with ashes and dressed in hair shirts on Ash Wednesday, then sent out of the church to do acts of repentance and to fast. They were returned to the community on Maundy Thursday and publicly reunited with the church.
Then everyone sort of got on the devotional bandwagon -- not just candidates for baptism, or penitent sinners -- and began using the time of Lent as a way to prepare for observing the Triduum, which are the three days from Good Friday through to Easter. Intentional prayer, self-discipline and fasting were seen as ways to draw closer to God and to focus on the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection.
The fasting and ashes have Biblical backgrounds ... Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, and ashes and sackcloth were a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance. We are marked with ashes as a sign of our mortality (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) and as a sign of our need to accept our human limitations and predisposition to sin, and use that as inspiration to turn to God and deepen our relationship with God. The sign of the cross done in ash echoes the cross that was drawn on our foreheads in baptism, and the ashes are actually mixed with baptismal oil, so the cross of our bodily death and the cross of our eternal life are mixed together in that one gesture of drawing the ash on the forehead.
We drop the alleluias and other aspects of Easter celebration to mark this as a season of thoughtful preparation for Easter, and so when we bring out the alleluias on Easter, we will be so much happier to have them back.
I find in our culture that it is easy to have a cross-less Christianity ... all Easter and no Good Friday. Lent helps us remember that you can't have resurrection without something dying first. And it helps us refocus on Christ's sacrifice for us, that God loved us enough to participate in our human life, all the way to death and out the other side, in order to set us back into right relationship with God.
Basically, Lent is a time to remember that God is God. And we are not.