Next to Advent and Christmas, Lent is one of the most celebrated and revered seasons in the year of the Catholic Church. Almost everybody knows the basics about Lent: that it begins on Ash Wednesday, lasts several weeks in which people routinely “give up” something, and concludes on Easter Sunday with a celebration of the Risen Christ.
But how many people, both practicing Catholics and otherwise, know about the meanings and history behind many of our Lenten traditions? We talked to Father Czeslaw Krysa, diocesan director of the Office of Worship and rector of St. Casimir Church in Buffalo, to gain further insight into the traditions of Lent.
1. What is Lent? Beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter Sunday, Lent is marked by 40 days on the Catholic Church calendar where the faithful are called to purify and renew themselves spiritually.
“Lent is a time to prepare for the renewal of our life in the Resurrection, and a renewal of our baptismal experience of Jesus and our Risen Lord,” Father Krysa said.
2. What is Ash Wednesday? While not a holy day of obligation, Catholics are called to attend Mass and receive ashes marked on their forehead in the sign of a cross. The ashes are made from the remains of the burned palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. It is also recommended Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday, abstaining from meat.
Father Krysa notes the significance of the ashes, as it is symbolic of freeing ourselves from the unnecessary as “remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
“Ashes is the fact that basically, God is in charge,” Father Krysa said. “Everything that we think we need is taken away from us and then we have to believe.”
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday prepared Catholics for baptism and the reconciliation of penitence.
“The imposition of ashes was a sign of entrance into the state of penitent,” Father Krysa said. “This is way before confession existed. People who committed major, not just mortal, sin were enrolled into penitence meant they had ashes imposed and stood at the back of the church and did not receive the Eucharist until they were reconciled on Holy Thursday. “
3. Why do we “give up” something during Lent? Many Catholics make personal sacrifice pledges to themselves during Lent, such as giving up chocolate, alcohol or coffee. But with that sacrifice should be a pledge to give something of yourselves, to walk in the path of Christ.
“For us to be renewed, (we) have to take some kind of spiritual journey, or I call, a spiritual workout,” Father Krysa said. “If you want to work out and get healthy, you go and you train. This is a spiritual training time, and therefore, makes a person healthier. That’s part of it, but another part of it is dieting and fasting. There’s a difference between abstaining and fasting, such as abstaining from certain types of food like meat on Fridays, while fasting is limiting the amount of food you take. Downsizing is another good word. That’s one aspect, which leads to renewal.
Catholics should also share the fruits of their fasting.
“When I deny myself, I need to place at the table somebody who is less fortunate and needy,” he said. “That’s the origin of Christian fasting. I hear people say, ‘I’m not going to Starbucks during Lent. The money I save by not going to Starbucks, I can put aside and give it to the food pantry. We gather the fruits of the fast.
“It’s not just writing a check, it’s connected with our fasting and purifying ourselves. Fasting and abstinence needs to have the other side of the coin. What I deny myself, I have to give to somebody else.”
4. Why do we abstain from meat on Fridays and fast days? Father Krysa explained that in ancient tradition, different religions picked different days of the week to fast, so while Hebrews had Tuesdays and Thursdays, Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. That is where the customary observance for Fridays came from, and also connects to Good Friday.
As far as abstaining from meat goes, Father Krysa recalls that unlike modern society, meat was considered a luxury in the past, and only consumed on special occasions like a Feast day.
“It wasn’t as available and more expensive,” he said. “Pork, in European society, was a sign of prosperity because of the fat. So meat was connected to something that was not daily. Everything else was daily fare. In the time of Christ, what we would consider a hamburger and fries was a regular dinner, it would be salt and bread.”
5. Why is Easter on a different day each year? The Lenten calendar changes each year, because tradition dictates that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year, that full moon will be April 19, and therefore, Easter falls on April 21. Because of this tradition, Easter will always fall between March 22 and April 25.
Once the date of Easter is decided, the Lenten calendar goes back 40 days (excluding Sundays) to determine Ash Wednesday, which is March 6. The 40 days tradition stems from the amount of time Jesus Christ spent wandering and fasting in the Judaean Desert. Excluding Sundays from Lenten fasting connects to Sundays celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, and, in modern parlance, gives Catholics a “cheat day” from their Lenten sacrifice.
“It’s not a coincidence (Lent happens during Spring), but it’s also supportive and affirms both,” Father Krysa said. “The fathers of the Church therefore call spring rebirth, the flowering of Easter, a mystical symbol. In other words, it’s a direct connection between resurrection and new life as is experienced in creation.