Explaining lent ... and you're giving up what?

February 21, 2009 

  • Tell us what you're giving up for Lent

    Are you fasting from something for Lent? If so, e-mail what you’re giving up to online@modbee.com. Responses will be posted online with this story.

  • Ash Wednesday at a Glance

    The date moves each year, but is always 46 days before Easter.

    The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is Feb. 4 (in a year with Easter on March 22), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818.

    The latest date is March 10 (when Easter falls on April 25), which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943.

    Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day, Feb. 29 (when Easter is on April 15), but it will happen for the first time in 2096; the other years that will happen in this millennium are 2688, 2840, and 2992.

    In the next decade, Ash Wednesday will fall on: Feb. 17, 2010; March 9, 2011; Feb. 22, 2012; Feb. 13, 2013; March 5, 2014; Feb. 18, 2015; Feb. 10, 2016; March 1, 2017; Feb. 14, 2018; and March 6, 2019.

    Denominations celebrating Ash Wednesday include: African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Anglican/Episcopal, Church of the Nazarene, Lutheran, United Methodist, Reformed (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), etc.), Roman Catholic, and some Baptist, Community of Christ and Free churches.

Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season leading up to Easter, is this week for most Christians. In traditional Catholic and some Protestant churches, services will be held and parishioners will receive the ashen mark of a cross on their forehead. The priest or minister usually says these words from Genesis: "Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return."

In the Catholic Church, the ashes are made by burning the palm branches blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year, then adding holy water and incense. In other traditions, palm ashes are mixed with water or oil.

Lent is the 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter when people can acknowledge their sins, meditate on God and Scripture, and prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Forty days is a recurring biblical number. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Elijah traveled for 40 days to reach the cave where God spoke to him in a still, small voice. Jonah told the inhabitants of Nineveh that their city would be destroyed in 40 days. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus was seen by the disciples and crowds of other people for 40 days after his resurrection.

Why ashes?

In the Bible, people who are mourning or repentant often donned ashes on their heads and wore sackcloth. Job, who lost many of his family and possessions, is one example. In the 10th century, a Catholic homilist said, "Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."

Many Christians fast during Lent, just as Muslims fast during Ramadan and Jews fast during Yom Kippur. In all three faiths, it's a time to give up food for a time to focus on God and a time of repentance for the things you have done wrong.

The Lenten fast helps Christians "mortify our egoism and open our hearts to love of God and neighbor," said Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month.

Some Catholics and Protestants fast from things other than -- or in addition to -- food. Last year, The Bee interviewed parishioners who fasted from energy-consuming activities such as driving their cars and focused instead on environmentally friendly practices. Some people refrain from unnecessary purchases. Others may give up a pleasurable habit, such as television, dessert or mystery books.

Fasting "nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word," the pope said.

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