Today, Ash Wednesday, begins the season of Lent—the 40 days of preparation for Easter.
The word “Lent” comes from Old English and German words that describe spring and the lengthening of days. The practice to spend 40 days to prepare for Easter has been an ancient practice of the Church since the fourth century. Before he met God and received the Ten Commandments, Moses spent 40 days in fasting and prayer. Jesus himself, before he began his public ministry, spent 40 days in prayer and fasting in the desert.
There are two purposes for this Lenten season of preparation. First, Easter is the greatest feast we have as Christians because it celebrates the new life that comes to us from the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Dedicating ourselves to preparing for this feast with self-denial and conversion of heart helps us experience Easter joy and new life more fully.
Second, Easter is the time when people who wish to join the Catholic faith are brought into the Church with baptism. The Church has always prescribed a time of preparation for baptism, and Lent is a special time for these people to get ready for that sacrament. For those of us who are already baptized, witnessing those who are converting to the faith reminds us of the need for continual renewal and conversion. We join them in solidarity and spend Lent seeking conversion so we are ready to renew our baptismal promises at Easter.
Three practices have always defined the Lenten season of preparation: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Jesus speaks of these disciplines to his followers because they were pillars of Jewish practice. The three practices touch on all of the ways in which we relate: prayer is about our relationship with God; fasting is about our relationship with ourselves; and giving to the poor is about our relationship with others, especially those who are in need.
Catholics are accordingly encouraged to dedicate themselves to a regular practice of prayer and to make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Catholics also devote themselves in a special way to the poor by offering money, support, or time in service. Many Catholics also fast from some luxury or indulgence during this time. To find resources for your own Lenten journey, see our prayer and reflection opportunities.
The guidelines for fasting and abstinence that apply to all Catholics during Lent are simple: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful between the ages of 18 and 59 fast, which means they have only one full meal in the day, and use smaller snacks to sustain their strength. On these days and all the other Fridays of Lent, Catholics abstain from meat.
The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday comes from an ancient rite that was used by converted sinners as an outward sign of their sorrow for their actions. The ashes come from the burning of palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass, which begins Holy Week with a recounting of Jesus’ suffering and death. The sign of ashes connects the beginning of our Lenten practice of preparation with the suffering and death of Jesus, all in anticipation of the promise of new life that comes to us in the resurrection.
Ashes worn on the forehead is more than just an external act—it symbolizes our human frailty and mortality and reminds us of our need for God. As they are applied, we are told, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or, “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” Ashes remind us that the season of Lent is about renewal, conversion, and penance—that we are to put aside sin and to take on new lives of faithfulness.
As we begin Lent today with Ash Wednesday, let us be renewed by prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor.