Understanding Ash Wednesday
Recognized as the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday that has been honored for over ten centuries. Palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and the ashes are used to bless members of the church. Clergy members from all over the world use ashes to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads as they repeat the line from Genesis 3:19 “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. This verse serves as a reminder that life is precious and fragile and should be cherished.
Ash Wednesday is a chance for Christians, and non-Christians alike, to repent for the sins of the past year. Priests will administer ashes to all who wish to partake in the ritual. This day of repentance includes fasting and praying for forgiveness for any wrongs committed. It is a time of deep introspection and a chance to wipe the slate clean for the coming year.
The day before Ash Wednesday is called Fat Tuesday. The name derives from the fact that people would empty their pantries and cabinets of rich foods that they would be giving up for the season of Lent. This day of partying and celebration traditionally included parades, costumes, masks and dancing.
Lent is the six week season of preparation for Easter. These 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (there are technically 46, but the church does not count the Sundays as part of Lent) are meant to be a time of reflection and atonement. These 46 days are recognized as the time that Jesus spent in prayer and fasting in the desert.
Resistance to temptation is an exercise practiced during Lent. The notion of giving up something loved, such as dessert or sweets is a ritual associated with this time. The belief is that when you deny yourself something indulgent you will then be able to focus more intently on Jesus. This time of restriction also symbolizes the sacrifices that Jesus made for his followers.
During Lent, parishioners are forbidden from eating meat on Fridays. There are conflicting theories as to the reasoning behind this practice. The most common belief is that the Catholic Church wanted to remind its members that Christ died on a Friday and gave up his earthly flesh for the sake of all Christians. In order to follow this rule, many Catholics eat fish on Fridays during Lent.
Purple is the color of Lent. The color of penance and mourning, purple is also recognized as the color of royalty, symbolizing Christ as the King of Christianity. Lighting a 14 day purple candle during the Lenten period is a way to honor this religious observance.
The last week of Lent is known as Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday, which is one week before Easter. On Palm Sunday, parishioners are given palm fronds, a symbol of peace and victory. These palms are carried by the church-goers while they participate in a procession around and into the church. This ritual symbolizes Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. The colors associated with Palm Sunday are red and white, symbolizing the blood of Jesus that was shed for the redemption of his people. Burn a 14 day red candle in commemoration of Palm Sunday.
The last supper is celebrated on Holy Thursday. It is believed that Jesus ate his last meal with his Disciples in Jerusalem on this night. Other than Easter, Holy Thursday is the most profound of all Christian religious observances. During this mass, a reenactment of Jesus’ last meal is commemorated and parishioners partake in the sharing of the blood and the body of Christ, symbolized with bread and wine.
Good Friday commemorates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The religious ritual known as the 14 Stations of the Cross are performed at this mass. A series of 14 images and corresponding prayers are set up around the church nave. Parishioners travel from station to station, reflecting on the images of Jesus’ last day. This highly emotional mass reminds Christians of the unimaginable pain that Jesus bore for his faith. Anoint a Sacred Heart of Jesus candle with holy oil and burn the candle in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice.
These 46 days are considered the most holy in Christianity. They are filled with symbolism, reflection and repentance. Everyone practices their religion in their own, personal way. Whether it happens in a church, a park or in the comfort of your home, there are many ways to express your commitment to your faith.