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The Catholic New World
Ashes to ashes
Lenten season of penance, preparation begins

Kristin Peterson

Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 21 this year, and Catholics must consider what sacrifices to make, how to serve others and how to grow closer to God during the season of Lent.

Every year, Catholics focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving during Lent, traditions that have roots in the early Christian church.

The tradition of fasting in preparation for the Easter celebration likely comes from the time of the early church, when catechumens would fast before receiving the sacraments of baptism and Communion, according to Dennis Martin, associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University.

In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, a document written in 215 in Rome, the author includes information about the rituals for initiating new members of the church. The document says, “Those who are to receive baptism shall fast on the Preparation of the Sabbath.” (chapter 20, verse 7).

Martin said the catechumens were not usually taught the meaning of the sacraments until after they received them. The sacraments were awesome events and Martin said the candidates would want to fast in order to fully experience the sacraments.

Martin speculates that as more and more people in the culture became Christian, there were fewer catechumens. “More people fasted in preparation for the renewal of their baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil,” he said.

Fasting has a strong history in both the Christian and Jewish traditions. Martin said the first Christians continued the Jewish tradition of fasting twice a week.

“All the way through Hebrew scripture, people were encouraged to fast in preparation,” Martin said. “If you are approaching something holy, you don’t just walk into it without preparation.”

Franciscan Father Gilbert Ostdiek, professor of liturgy at Chicago Theological Union, said Christians would fast for several days in preparation for Easter and would only eat one meal a day. “The extent of the fasting was much more than what we would think of today,” he said.

The 40 days of Lent have obvious Biblical significance. “There are all of these 40s throughout the Old and New Testaments,” Martin said. Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, Noah was in the ark during 40 days of the flood, Moses was with God for 40 days on Mt. Sinai, and the Israelites traveled through the desert for 40 years.

Ostdiek added that Catholics used to fast for the whole 40 days “in sympathy with the fasting of Christ in the desert.”

Now, fasting is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and Catholics should abstain from meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday.

At one time, Catholics would abstain from all meat, in addition to eggs and milk. This is where we get the tradition of giving away Easter eggs at the end of the Lenten fast.

Some of the present Lenten traditions also have connections to the ceremony of readmitting public penitents into the church. Ostdiek said that during the third and fourth centuries, public penitents—those who had committed serious sins and wanted to return to the church—would go through a period of penance, prayer, worship and study.

At the beginning of this process the bishop would sprinkle ashes on their heads and they would don sackcloth. Now on Ash Wednesday, all the faithful receive ashes on their forehead, marking a commitment to penance.

On Holy Thursday, Ostdiek said, the penitents would receive the Eucharist.

The traditions surrounding the public penance service have influenced Lenten traditions.

“During the Middle Ages, the people took some of the aspects of public penance and made them an aspect of the preparation for Easter,” he said. “More people adopted these practices as a spiritual preparation.”

In today’s church, Ostdiek said, there are “remnants” of both the public penance service and the initiation of catechumens.

Liturgically, the season of Lent is still focused around the initiation of new members through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

“The liturgy of Lent, which includes the scriptures and the rites connected with RCIA, is meant to prepare us to renew our baptismal vows at Easter,” said Todd Williamson, the director for the archdiocese’s Office for Divine Worship. “We prepare to renew our baptismal vows through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, penance. All of these are a means to prepare.”

During Lent, Williamson said the tone of the liturgies is “solemn but not somber.” There is usually less singing. “We fast from the Gloria and the Alleluia,” Williamson said. On the other hand, some churches will choose to sing the penitential rite.

Changes in the liturgy for Lent are very important, said Williamson “It draws us into this most important season. It doesn’t let us forget,” he said.

An older tradition, which is not always used, is for churches to cover statues during Lent. It is a tradition that comes from Passiontide, which used to be the celebration of the last two weeks of Lent. Williamson said the covering of the statues is a “visual fast” that eliminates some distractions. “We don’t recognize Passiontide anymore but the tradition of veiling has resurfaced,” Williamson said.

A modern Lenten tradition is to put sand in the holy water fonts. Williamson said this new practice is not encouraged since it eliminates the holy water. “We are preparing for the renewal of our baptismal vows so it is a great reminder to bless ourselves with holy water,” he said.

During Lent, parishes try to practice the three traditions of Lent communally. Churches hold extra liturgies to encourage prayer. These liturgies can include liturgy of the hours, penance services and mission talks. To encourage fasting, churches host soup and spirituality events, which combine a simple meal with a spiritual discussion. Parishes will also give alms for a particular charity.

“There are more personal observances during Lent but Lent is not by any means a more personal season,” Williamson points out. “We go through this season together as a community.”


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