By: Haley Cox/Editor
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Catholics have what they call Holy Days of Obligation when members are required to attend Mass. Ash Wednesday, however, is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Yet, it has some of the highest attendances of all the special Masses.
Why? In a class I took last Sunday morning, it was jokingly suggested that more people come because the Church gives away something for free (ashes). It also was suggested that more people come because they really want to start over and make themselves new again. I’d like to think the latter is the real reason.
When you attend Mass on Wednesday, the priest distributes ashes. The ashes are the remains of palms from Palm Sunday last year. The palms are burned and used to mark a cross on each person’s forehead. While the priest smears the ashes on your forehead, he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It reminds us of our mortality, and when we die our bodies will return to the earth. The mark is also a mark of ownership by God.
The season of Lent lasts about 40 days until Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper. We talked about the meaning of the number 40 during class Sunday. In the Old Testament, God flooded the earth with rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses and the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years before entering into the Holy Land. In the New Testament, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning his ministry. So what does it all symbolize?
What else today takes 40 weeks? I answered, “Pregnancy.” If you think about it, 40 weeks is how long it takes to bring new life into the world, so the number 40 is symbolic of renewal. That’s why Lent lasts 40 days — it’s a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving before renewal on Easter.
It’s also customary for Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. That means no hamburgers! Years ago, the rule of abstaining from meat on Fridays lasted all year long, not just during Lent. But supposedly the American people enjoyed their lobster too much, so the Church adjusted its rule.
Fasting and abstaining from food reminds us of the poor and the hungry who cannot always afford meat — or any food, for that matter. It helps us share in their suffering and hopefully leads us to work harder at relieving their suffering. Additionally, as my teacher put it, sometimes you have to empty yourself in order to be filled with good things.
Also, people usually think it’s required to give up something during Lent. It’s not. Instead, it’s your choice to give something up. What may be even harder is to take something up. In other words, you vow to do something in order to grow in your relationship with God. Last year, I gave up chocolate. This year, I think I will read the Bible every day.
Not every denomination celebrates Lent, but growing up with it in the Catholic Church, I have learned to look forward to it every year. So whether you celebrate it or not, I wish you a happy season of renewal.