What is Ash Wednesday and What is Lent?
Ash Wednesday marks the start of observation of Lent - the most solemn time of the Christian Year. The day gets its name from the traditional blessing of the ashes taken after the burning of Palm branches (or crosses made from Palm leaves) from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence: from the Middle Ages and it became the custom to begin Lent by marking Christians with the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads to mark the beginning of their Lent fast. The drawing of a cross is often done while repeating the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The season is traditionally marked by self-examination, fasting and preparation for Easter. It is a time when Christians reflect on the biblical account of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13).
It also became a time when those who were to be baptised at Easter were instructed in the Christian faith. It became customary for the whole Christian community to join them in study and self-reflection, through a period of forty days, corresponding to the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry.
Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means "spring". Because Lent follows the liturgical calendar, the exact date that Lent falls each year changes. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is always held forty-six days (forty fasting days and six Sundays) before Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday is the day after Shrove Tuesday, which in the UK is more commonly known as Pancake Day. Elsewhere in the world Shrove Tuesday is known as Mardi Gras (meaning ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French).
These days, Christians around the world observe Lent in many ways. Many from more orthodox and traditional denominations will still observe the fast strictly, beginning with the wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday and abstinence of meat, fish, eggs and fats until Easter Sunday.
Others will choose to give up just one item for Lent, more commonly a ‘luxury’ such as chocolate, meat or alcohol. It is also becoming increasingly common for people to give up other things in order to refocus their faith during this time; such as watching TV, going to the gym, even social media.
Many Christians also use Lent to study their Bibles and pray more intensively, making use of the many devotional books and courses now available. Nowadays more and more Christians are turning to the '40acts challenge' as a way of doing Lent differently; using simple daily reflections and acts of generosity as a way of putting others first during preparations for Easter.
Sundays during Lent are very important to Christians around the world and in some countries where the Monday to Saturday of each of the six weeks are concerned with fasting and abstinence, the Sunday is a celebration symbolic of Christ’s resurrection. Instead of fasting, Christians hold feasts in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. The fourth and sixth Sundays are particularly important in the UK – the fourth because it is Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day) and the sixth because it is Palm Sunday.
Interesting Local Note: In the North East of England the fifth Sunday of Lent known as Passion Sunday was traditionally called Carlin Sunday as Carlin Peas would be served. The eating of Carlin peas during the period of Lent bears no religious significance but instead, seems to be linked to the civil war of 1644, where the Royalist Newcastle was under siege from the Scots. The lack of food meant that the people on both sides of the Tyne were dying of starvation. Legend has it that a French ship managed to dock at Newcastle with a cargo of Maple Peas. Other tales, tell of a ship, laden with peas, which became stranded at South Shields a fortnight before Easter Day. The peas were washed ashore and salvaged by the locals. The real story is lost in time but for centuries, Passion Sunday (the fifth Sunday of Lent), in some Northern regions of England, became known as “Carlin Sunday” and the small brown peas became popular at this time.
As Holy Week approaches, the atmosphere of the season darkens. Bible readings begin to anticipate the story of Christ's suffering and death. Holy Week begins with the re-enactment of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This is the beginning of a journey of the imagination which takes us to the Upper Room for the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, through Jesus' betrayal, trial and crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, is a day like no other, a day of desolation and despair. In the Easter Vigil, the Church gathers to call to mind the mighty works of God through reading of scripture, in preparation for the proclamation of the resurrection, which marks the beginning of the celebration of Easter.
Do you know what an Agape Meal is?
A Love Feast or Agape Feast was a fellowship meal eaten by Christians in the early church which represents the Last Supper the final meal that Jesus shared with his apostles in Jerusalem before his crucifixion. There is biblical evidence for the practice of these communal meals, during which Christians gathered not just for the sake of sustenance and socialising, but also for the sake of fellowship. The Agape Meal is a simple, ritual meal and sometimes hymns are sung, Scripture is read, and testimonies and stories of faith are shared.