Ash Wednesday, 2006. Lectionary Year II
Today, for millions of Christians world-wide, the season of Lent begins. Yesterday was Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) because it was the eve of Ash Wednesday, the day which marked the beginning of Lent. Back when the old and more rigorous rules still held, one fasted and abstained during the Lenten period. The limited fasting meant that you had one full meal a day and two smaller (meatless) ones, which were not to equal your usual full meal. Abstention involved refraining from eating meat. Every year, about halfway through Lent my mother would grumble, “if I eat one more egg, I’ll turn into a chicken.” Lent does get old. Since it comes on the ebb of Winter, it can also seem much, much longer than it really is.
Fat Tuesday is followed by Ash Wednesday. “Thou art dust” is the gentle reminder that life is brief…Ashes have been part of religious ceremonies for untold millennia. The ashes used in Christian churches are made from the palm fronds left over from the previous year’s Palm Sunday commemoration of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to begin His final week on earth.
The observance of Lent, lasting the forty days from Ash Wednesday to noon on Holy Saturday, the penultimate day of this part of the liturgical season. Easter, the following day, is the beginning of a new season, and the shedding of Lenten sorrow. It is joyful not only because of what occurs again, but for its opposition to the gloom and sad suspense of the Passion Week which preceded it.
Lent is but a small part of the full liturgical year. Like the rest of the calendar, it is devoted to sacred time, to that part of the human soul that is timeless and yet, while here, anchored to time and to the recurring observation/celebration of Christ’s life on earth. Carefully observed, it becomes part of the warp and woof of one’s own tapestry of life.
As a child in a Catholic orphanage, my days were imbued with an almost medieval sense of time. Looking back, I can see now the overarching meaning that the Liturgical Year provided in the lives of little girls without the buffer of parents against the slings and arrows of childhood. It gave us a higher, deeper, and wider sense of the sacredness of the quotidian: those feast days and the changing rubrics of color and music and prayer belonged to the ages. By understanding that, and being given the meaning behind the flow of each year, we remained rooted to a sense of belonging to something far greater than ourselves.
When people make fun of the Muslims for their daily routine of prayer, they miss the point of that kind of belonging. Yes, you can live in the modern world and pray five times a day. In Saint Mary’s we certainly prayed more often than that.
Here it is Ash Wednesday and I haven’t decided what to do for Lent. This season, for me, is the most intensely directed. Easter and Pentecost are the lodestones of Christian faith. Celebrating Christmas could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn’t mean much. But from here to Pentecost are the crucial moments. From the 40th day before Easter right through to the Day of Pentecost lies the fulcrum upon which the rest depends.
Before I go to church to have the ashes placed on my forehead and am reminded by this of my mortality, I’ll decide what it I’m supposed to do. Discernment is not my strong suit, and I have been distracted by our friend’s death in these last days leading up to today. I have an idea what my Lenten practice will be, but until I feel more sure, I’ll let it be.
For reading this week, I’ll be returning to A Search for God in Time and Memory by John Dunne. Mine is the 1967 edition and shows its age. Remember when paperbacks were $1.95?
You can still get the 1977 edition here, at Notre Dame Press. It’s $15.00, but you get about ten pages more for your money. No doubt a new introduction with Father Dunne’s thoughts about what changed for him in those ten years.
May you experience the depth of Lent's adventure into the unknown.