Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Somber, Beautiful Season of Lent


Tomorrow is the first day of Lent. I'll be sharing more about how I am observing this beautiful season of the church year with you in the coming days, but for today, here is a lovely passage on Lent from one of my favorite books, The Dance of Time by Michael Judge. The labyrinth in the picture is just a short walk from my daughter's apartment. Last year I walked it on New Year's Day, and weather permitting I hope to visit it again this weekend as part of my Lenten observance.

Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent lasts for forty days, in imitation of Christ's self imposed exile in the desert at the beginning of His mission. During this time the faithful are expected to give up vices or pleasurable habits, pray and attend mass more frequently, and meditate on the state of their souls. In medieval times people donned sackcloth, smeared their faces with ash and water, flogged themselves and foreswore most food and drink during the Lenten observance. In spite of its severe customs, Lent is a hopeful time. The word comes from the Middle Earth word, lengten or "lengthen", a reference to the fact that the days grow mercifully longer during this time.

Of course, people being people, all of this Lenten-self sacrifice had to be rewarded before it even began. Throughout Europe for three days before the beginning of Lent, businesses closed, streets were blocked off and everyone headed for church, where they went to confession. Afterwards, kegs were tapped, bottles drained, and sweet meats and other foods, soon to be forbidden, were consumed in a bout of wild merrymaking.

Eventually these pre-Lenten revels became concentrated into the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, called Pancake Day, after the sweet pancakes traditionally eaten during the party. In Medieval France where the day was known as mardi gras, or Fat Tuesday, a vast carnival was celebrated during which an enormous ox was paraded through the streets of Paris, surrounded by common folk dressed blasphemously as priests and nuns. The people banged drums and kettles in an unconscious imitation of a Roman triumphal parade. Years later in France's former debauched colony of New Orleans, the party known as Mardi Gras became America's most famous orgy, and a raucous song in the depths of winter. Eventually, however, in New Orleans as in all christian lands, Lent arrives with the grey dawn of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is calculated backwards forty days from Easter. It is so named because on that day Catholics stand before the church alter and receive on their foreheads a smeared cross of ash from the priest. along with an admonition, that in some churches is still whispered in Latin.


Memento, homo, quia pulvis es
et in pulverem reverteris.


(Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust though shalt return.)


The ashes come from a very specific source. On Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, members of the congregation hold palm fronds, in imitation of the crowds who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem. Afterwards the palms are ceremoniously burned, their ashes collected and stored. They reappear the following year on Ash Wednesday, to be daubed on the foreheads of the faithful. The symbolism of Ash Wednesday's is circular, striking and sublime. A year after the Savior's symbolic entrance into the city, the very ashes of the banners once held forth to honor him now prepare the faithful for the season of His crucifixion. 

- from The Dance of Time
by Michael Judge




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