Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday 2011


Ash Wednesday 2011: What's the Origin and Meaning of the Christian Event?


Torie Bosch


Tomorrow, when the revelers in New Orleans are feeling their hangovers (or are still drunk) from Fat Tuesday, many of the faithful will be in church.

Because after Fat Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. Both are part of the lead-up to Easter, the holiest day of the year for Christians.

Here's how it works. Fat Tuesday is a last hurrah. There's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for instance, and the raucous Carnival in Latin countries.

Once Fat Tuesday has come to a close -- and that's at midnight sharp in New Orleans -- Ash Wednesday begins. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, a several-week-long period of repentance and contemplation for Catholics. Lent observation and its rituals were formalized for Christians by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and have evolved over the following centuries.

On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent is marked with church services in which priests and ministers place ashes in the sign of the cross on the faithful's foreheads. As he places the ashes upon the person's forehead, a priest will say, "Remember, man is dust, and unto dust you shall return"; "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel"; or "Repent, and hear the good news."

Traditionally, ashes are a sign of penance, and wearing the ashen cross tells the world that you are repenting your sins. The ashes themselves are composed of holy water mixed with the burned remains of the palm fronds from the prior year's Palm Sunday service. Palm Sunday falls on the Sunday before Easter.


For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting, as those between 15 and 59 are expected to abstain from meat and eat only one full meal during the day. During Lent, Catholics are to abstain from meat on Fridays as well.

Lent lasts for 46 days (or 40 days without counting Sundays) and ends on Easter. Catholics are also encouraged to give up something for Lent, so Ash Wednesday for many can also mean the first day of abstaining from, say, chocolate.

While the Catholic Church's observance of Ash Wednesday may be the most well known, other churches also mark the holiday, including the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church. Eastern churches instead celebrate "Clean Monday" or "Ash Monday."




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"Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in [God's] will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee."

- T.S. Eliot, from his poem "Ash Wednesday"

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