Monday, February 15, 2010

Mardi Gras, Ashes and other Fun Facts!

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday – the official beginning of Lent and Easter.

Where has all the time gone? It seems like just a little while ago that we were talking about the traditions of Christmas!

And now it is time to talk about the traditions of Lent. There is so much to say because our Church has such a rich tradition during this time (but I won’t talk about all of them right now!)

But let’s start with some of the basics.

Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten which means springtime. In the time of the Anglo-Saxons this was a dramatic time. For these people, this was an emergence of life after the winter solstice and the hard, cold darkness of their world into a gradual lengthening of daylight and the witnessing of rebirth all around them.

It is a perfect symbolism of life defeating death and a natural reminder of Jesus’ death and rebirth.

Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting. This is not an accident. The number 40 has particular significance in the Bible.

There are at least ten instances in the Old Testament and New Testament where 40 occurs, either in years or days. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights; the Israelites wandered 40 years; Elijah fasted for 40 days on his way to Mt. Horeb. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and was seen on the earth for 40 days after His crucifixion.

A 40-something time period, whether days, months, or years is always a period of testing, trial, probation, or chastisement (but not judgment) and ends with a period of restoration, revival or renewal.

Our church’s official title for Lent is Quadragesima which is Latin for “Forty.” Pretty cool, huh?

Our fasting is done in imitation of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness. Originally done by catechumens (those preparing to enter the Church), it gradually spread to the entire church. It is meant to be a reminder to us of Christ and also an opportunity for us to reflect on our human wants and our spiritual needs.

When I was first starting out, I thought, but if it is for forty days of Lent, then why is it 6 weeks? Fair question. That’s because fasting was never done on Sundays, which are memorials of Jesus’ resurrection (so they are almost like mini-Easters). Then around the 7th Century these included Good Friday and Holy Saturday and so our Lenten season became 6 weeks.

So, my party friends like to ask, How does Mardi Gras fit into all of this? Good question!

Mardi Gras, French for “fat Tuesday,” started for good practical reasons. During the period before there was refrigeration, the foods that were forbidden by the church’s lenten discipline (carnelvarium which is Latin for “removal of meat”) would have spoiled - it made sense to eat the food rather than have it go to waste.

Also, there was a pre-Christian tradition of revelry and masquerade associated with pagan observances of spring and New Year festivals celebrated at the spring or vernal equinox.

Given the penitential nature of Lent, it was a natural coupling of eating these rich foods and having a “last fling” before the more somber season of Lent began.

This was not just for the party-loving French, even in ethnic Polish areas, the baking selling and eating of paczki (a heavy, deep-fried pastry sometimes filled with fruit) was a popular practice before Ash Wednesday.

Finally this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is also called Shrove Tuesday. From Middle English shriven or confession – this is an old custom where the faithful go to confession in preparation for Lent. Also with all that party-going, sometimes you got stuff to confess!

But you haven’t heard anything yet – the best is yet to come – Ash Wednesday!

Ash Wednesday is so named because the faithful have their foreheads marked with the sign of the cross from the ashes of the burned palms saved from the previous year. Like many of our traditions, the custom of placing ashes on people’s heads and the wearing of sackcloth is an ancient penitential practice common among the Hebrew people. (Remember the story of Jonah and Ninevah?) We have kept the ashes but lost the sackcloth (probably just as well, sackcloth is kind of itchy and doesn’t go real well with my tie).

But did you know that this practice was not originally associated with Lent?

Nope. As early as the 300s, the local churches used it as part of their practice of temporarily excommunicating public sinners from the community! These people were guilty of public “capital” sins such as murder, adultery, and apostasy (renunciation of one's religion).

By the 7th Century (yes the 7th Century again), this custom had expanded to a public Ash Wednesday ritual. Sinners would confess privately and then be presented to the bishop who would lay hands and impose ashes on these penitents and then expel them from the congregation in imitation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise! (Oh yeah, and you thought your confession was uncomfortable!) They would be reminded that death is the punishment for sin – “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

They lived apart from their families and from the rest of the parish for the forty days of Lent. “Quarantine” is from Latin quadraginta, from quadra- (akin to quattuor four) + -ginta (akin to viginti twenty). Not only did they have to dress in sackcloth and ashes, some common penance required that these penitents refrain from all sorts of things including: meat, alcohol, bathing, haircuts, shaves, marriage relations, and business. Now that’s penance!

Oh it gets worse – sometimes this lasted for years, sometimes even a lifetime!

Over time, this evolved to include all of us and incorporated personal rather than public sin. (And the punishment got a lot less severe too!)

Now, Ash Wednesday remains a rich tradition in our church. Thousands of the faithful will get their ashes either in the morning or the evening as an outward symbol of their faith and literally marking the beginning of Lent.

Personally, I always enjoy seeing who else is Catholic. Given how spread out we are now, it is always fun to see who else is Catholic. See how many you can spot on Wednesday!

I’ll be wearing mine!


  1. Thanks for the great history. Your post just became our religious ed. for Monday.

  2. You are welcome Tami. I find the history and traditions of our Church fascinating. Hopefully others do too! A big source of my information is from Greg Dues "Catholic Customs and Traditions: A Popular Guide." That and the internet! God Bless.