Lent started last week with Ash Wednesday. I haven’t been Catholic, or even Christian in years, but seeing people with ashes brought me back to my Catholic childhood. So if you aren’t Catholic you might be thinking ‘What’s with the ashes anyway?’ The ashes are a visible sign of contrition, an announcement that the ash wearer has sinned, repents the sin, and will try to do better in the future.
In my church we would write our sins on little pieces of paper that would be burned to make the ash for the ceremony. Not all churches do this, but it was meaningful for us.
The date of Ash Wednesday changes every year because it is dependent on Easter and Easter’s date is the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. It always struck me as rather weird that the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) based Easter on the ecclesiastical approximation of March 21 for the vernal equinox. I think the underlying Pagan rituals that honor the turning of the seasons, the sacred directions and the earth are so ingrained in human psyche, that the church can only overlay their own celebrations on what humans have marked and celebrated for millennia.
Ash Wednesday is the kick off for the 46 days of fasting, reflection and repentance of Lent. That’s why Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – is celebrated the day before. Mardi Gras is a big ‘get it out of your system’ celebration in preparation of the quiet of Lent. For my ancestors the start of Lent would be during the last hard push until spring.
When I was a kid we usually gave up candy, which wasn’t that hard since candy was a rare treat. We didn’t eat meat on Friday and our suffering from giving up something was supposed to put us in line with Christ’s suffering and prepare us for the joy of Easter. After all the reflection on the innocent misdeeds of childhood I learned to be guilty. I can be guilty about things I didn’t even do, or didn’t even think of doing. I am a recovering Catholic, so I’ve worked through most of the guilt, though the ashes are indelible, though invisible on my forehead.
As and adult, I understand fasting and reflecting differently. It is something I do now to check in with myself, do an honest assessment, ask for feedback and make corrections or amends as I can.
While I don’t miss being Catholic, I do miss the marking of seasons. When I was Catholic the year went by in clearly marked seasons, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, all with their own colors and prescribed actions. Fasting was followed by feasting, and the world made sense. I have tried to be more cognizant of the equinoxes and the solstices to give my life more of a seasonal pace.
Anyone else out there who follows a Catholic tradition just for the tradition?