Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. All churches that have a continuous history extending before AD 1500 observe Lent. The ancient church that wrote, collected, canonized, and propagated the New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles.
In the Old Testament ashes were used: (1) as a sign of humility and mortality; (2) as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. Our Christian use of ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom.
Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.
Originally the use of ashes and penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
A Christian should do everything for God's glory and the service of others, even the smallest of his actions, like brushing teeth or tying shoes. "Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1st Cor. 10:31). This principle applies to our acts of religious observances also -- they are done to please God and edify others: "Whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Christ ... and edify one another" (1st Thes. 5:10-11).
But if we do our acts of religion only to be seen and praised by others, then they are without any spiritual value. Our Lord wants us to have a pure intention of pleasing him in all we do. He does not want us to omit the actions, private or public, by which we bear witness to our faith in him. So in church among our own, our fellow Christians, we pray aloud and sing and receive Holy Communion and other sacraments and sacramentals, including the ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday.
Whether or not we leave the mark of ashes on our foreheads when we leave the church to go about our business is up to each one. We live in a secular environment, and we have a duty to witness to our belief in Christ, even at the cost of mockery. A speck of ash may set your neighbor to thinking.
The Western Church
Because Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, we skip over Sundays when we calculate the length of Lent. Therefore, in the Western Church, Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter.
Days of Fast and Abstinence
Under current canon law in the Western Rite of the Church, a day of fast is one on which Catholics who are eighteen to sixty years old are required to keep a limited fast. In this country, one may eat a single, normal meal and have two snacks, so long as these snacks do not add up to a second meal. Children are not required to fast, but their parents must ensure they are properly educated in the spiritual practice of fasting. Those with medical conditions requiring a greater or more regular food intake can be dispensed from the requirement of fasting by their pastor.
A day of abstinence is a day on which Catholics fourteen years or older are required to abstain from eating meat (under the current discipline in America, fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments or foods made using animal fat are permitted in the Western Rite of the Church, though not in the Eastern Rites.) Again, persons with special dietary needs can be dispensed by their pastor.
All Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence. Also, Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified, is another day of both fast and abstinence.
All days in Lent are appropriate for fasting or abstaining, but canon law does not require fasting on those days. Such fasting or abstinence is voluntary, like a freewill offering.
Giving up Something for Lent
Giving up something we enjoy for Lent, doing of physical or spiritual acts of mercy for others, prayer, fasting, abstinence, going to confession, and other acts expressing repentance in general.
By denying ourselves something we enjoy, we discipline our wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures. Just as indulging the pleasure of eating leads to physical flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in physically demanding situations, indulging in pleasure in general leads to spiritual flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in spiritual demanding situations, when the demands of morality require us to sacrifice something pleasurable (such as sex before marriage or not within the confines of marriage) or endure hardship (such as being scorned or persecuted for the faith). By disciplining the will to refuse pleasures when they are not sinful, a habit is developed which allows the will to refuse pleasures when they are sinful. There are few better ways to keep one's priorities straight than by periodically denying ourselves things of lesser priority to show us that they are not necessary and focus our attention on what is necessary.
Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross are a Catholic custom of Lent that commemorates the passion of Jesus on Good Friday.
The Stations of the Cross (or Way of the Cross; in Latin, Via Crucis; also called the Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrows, or simply, The Way) refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. The tradition exists in Roman Catholicism, Anglican, and Lutheranism. It may be done at any time, but is most commonly done during the Season of Lent, especially on Good Friday and on Friday evenings during Lent.
The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death, and this has become one of the most popular devotions for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (particularly those of the Western Rite).
Lent and Easter RegulationsThe Christian faithful are to do penance through prayer, fasting, abstinence and by exercising works of piety and charity. All Fridays through the year, and especially during Lent, are penitential days.
All who have reached their 14th birthday are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during Lent.
All those who are 18 and older, until their 59th birthday, are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Only one full meal is allowed on days of fast. Two other meals, sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken according to one's needs. But together, they should not equal a full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed.
The obligation does not apply to those whose health or ability to work would be seriously affected. People in doubt about fast or abstinence should consult a parish priest. The obligation does not apply to military personnel in deployed or hostile environments in which they have no control over meals.
All Catholics are to worthily receive Holy Communion at least once in the time period beginning on the First Sunday of Lent and ending on Trinity Sunday.
Distribution of Ashes:
# The distribution of Ashes should take place in a sacred place such as a church or a chapel. The Order for the Distribution of Ashes provides that ashes should be distributed: 1. During Mass following the homily
# 2. At a (Catholic) Service of the Word
The Minister for Distribution of Blessed Ashes is a priest, a deacon, or a Catholic lay person.
On this day the Church invites us to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as a sign that during the coming days of Lent we will make a sincere effort to cleanse our lives of sin and to discipline ourselves through prayer and fasting.
Who May Receive Ashes?
Baptized individuals who have reached the age of reason. Babies and young children who have not yet received the Sacrament of Penance should not be presented to receive ashes since ashes are intended for those who are capable of personal sin. The observance of Ash Wednesday is intended to lead the baptized members of the Church to repentance and renewal of baptismal promises at Easter.
Ashes and the RCIA
All baptized Christians – those baptized in other Christian Churches and baptized but uncatechised Catholics – should receive ashes as part of their preparation for completing their initiation. It might be better if Catechumens joined in the celebration but did not receive ashes since they are not baptized. As they observe their baptized brothers and sisters acknowledging their sin, they might be encouraged on their journey to baptism to know that they too might come to need to repent after their baptism and the Church offers this opportunity through the annual observance of Lent and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Time of the Easter Vigil
According to the rubrics, the time to begin the Easter Vigil is after nightfall. (General Norms for the Liturgical Year, 21) Darkness is a constitutive element of the Vigil. Therefore, "...this rule is to be followed in the strictest sense. The Easter Vigil is not to be celebrated at the same time of day that is customary to celebrate anticipated Sunday Masses..." (Ordo).
The Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) responds that the Easter Vigil should not begin any earlier than 30-45 minutes after Nautical Twilight.