“The day of ashes and the beginning of the most holy fast of Lent” (The Roman Martyrology) is upon us.
According to the Ceremonial of Bishops, “the annual observance of Lent is the special season for the ascent to the holy mountain of Easter” (n. 249) that runs from Ash Wednesday to until the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. The liturgical season of Lent lasts for forty days, excluding Sundays, as fasting is not traditionally observed on the Lord’s Day. The duration of forty days was established based on the example set by Christ Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels:
- “Et cum ieiunasset quadraginta diebus, et quadraginta noctibus, postea esuriit [And He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward He was hungry]” (Matthew 4:2).
- “Et erat in deserto quadraginta diebus, et quadraginta noctibus: et tentabatur a Satana: eratque cum bestiis, et angeli ministrabant illi [And He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him]” (Mark 1:13).
- “Iesus autem plenus Spiritu Sancto regressus est a Iordane: et agebatur a Spiritu in desertum diebus quadraginta, et tentabatur a diabolo. Et nihil manducavit in diebus illis: et consummatis illis esuriit [And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, He was hungry]” (Luke 4:1-2).
On Ash Wednesday, blessed ashes are imposed on the faithful “as a sign of conversion, penance, fasting, and human mortality” (Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Melbourne, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (2002), n. 88).
Although not a Holy Day of Obligation, Masses on Ash Wednesday are often very well attended. Those attending Mass will hear an echo of the words God spoke to Adam in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris, literally “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return”. The Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite translates this as “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (The Roman Missal, Third Edition, 2010).
The late Pope Benedict XVI said that this formula “recalls the poverty and death which are the legacy of Adam’s sin while pointing us to the resurrection, the new life, and the freedom brought by Christ, the Second Adam” (General Audience, 17 February 2010).
Another optional formula that may be used in the Ordinary Form is “Pœnitemini, et credite Evangelio [Repent, and believe in the Gospel]”, taken from the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Mark (1:15).
Regarding this formula, Pope Benedict XVI said that these words from the beginning of Christ’s public ministry “reminds us that conversion is meant to be a deep and lasting abandonment of our sinful ways in order to enter into a living relationship with Christ, who alone offers true freedom, happiness, and fulfillment” (General Audience, 17 February 2010).
Lent is a time when we are called “to acknowledge our need of the Lord and His mercy” (Pope Francis, Message for Lent, 2019). It is a time of penance and renewal for the entire Church. “It is not enough for us to make commitment to it individually. We must be one with the entire Mystical Body of Christ” (Rev. Jovian P. Lang, OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy (1989), p. 318).
It is for this reason that the Church requires that the Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence from meat (and items made with meat) for all Catholics 14 years or older. Additionally, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of both fasting and abstinence. Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were required to fast every day in Lent, and many continue this practice today. It is never required to fast or abstain on a liturgical solemnity, such as the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 19 March, or on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary on 25 March. Sundays in Lent also rank as liturgical solemnities.
“In these forty days, Mother Church vests herself simply in violet. Her sacred halls are bare, and much of her gracious music is muted. Flowers at her altars and shrines are set aside, and, at the end of the season, the lamps will be extinguished, the bells will fall silent and her altars will be stripped. But this is her true springtime, when her children grow in grace, in ways often imperceptible, subtle and varied. Lent thus reminds us that the great graces are given by God, not when our senses perceive them or when our hearts are full of consolations, but in the silence and the stillness of ‘the night’” (Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Melbourne, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (2002), n. 89).
“Grant, O Lord, to Thy faithful people,
that they may undertake with fitting piety this period of fasting,
and complete it with steadfast devotion…”
(1962 edition of The Roman Missal).