Why do we put ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday?
Ashes are a symbol of mourning, mortality, and penance. After all, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). That was God’s reminder to Adam after he commited the original sin. During Old Testament times, God’s people would cover themselves with ashes in times of mourning, or to make reparation for their sins (cf. Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Dan 9:3). We do the same in order to remind ourselves of our own sins and of the fact that we are entirely dependent upon God for every second of our being. Therefore, we must make of this life all that God desires it to be, and remove from our lives anything that would hasten our spiritual death and keep us from Him.
What is Lent?
Lent is a period of about 40 days, not counting Sundays, in which we spiritually prepare ourselves for the Resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Lent is a somber time of personal reflection, of penance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time for calling to mind our sins, all the times in which we helped drive the nails into the hands and feet of Christ. It is a time for redoubling our efforts to grow in our prayer life and to experience God in the Sacraments of the Church. It is also a time for doing good works, for loving one another as Christ loved us.
What does it mean to “fast” and to “abstain.” When do we do these things? Who is required to do them?
To “fast” means, at minimum, eating one regularly-sized meal and two smaller meals, with no snacking in between. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for all Catholics age 18 – 60 years old.
To “abstain” is to refrain from eating the flesh and organs of warm-blooded animals. This abstinence is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent for all Catholics age 14 and up.
Why do people “give up” something for Lent? Is this something that we have to do?
While this is not strictly required, traditionally, Catholics choose something to give up, or refrain from doing, during Lent so as to embrace the penitential character of this season. Some people take this opportunity to overcome bad habits, like biting your nails, or smoking, or cursing. Others will give up something they enjoy, like ice cream, or television, or facebook. Whatever you do during Lent to unite yourself to the “Suffering Servant” is a good and laudable thing.
Peace of Christ to you,
Nicholas Hardesty, WIMM Board Member Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
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