By Fr. Michael Murtagh
Ash Wednesday falls on tomorrow, March 6th this year. Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday is today, the day when the last of the eggs, milk and fat is used up in the cooking of pancakes before the Great Fast. People used to fast from animal flesh and poultry and from the food that came from them, eggs, milk and cheese. This gave rise to the practice of giving away eggs at the end of Lent. If you are under eighteen or over fifty nine, the good news is that you are dispensed from fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That means I can find at least one excuse then. Shrove Tuesday is sometimes known as ‘Mardi Gras’ (Fat Tuesday) or Carnival Day, the word carnival deriving from the Latin words for ‘goodbye to meat’; the words carne and vale meaning meat and farewell respectively. Lent officially ends, not on Easter Sunday as is commonly thought, but at sundown on Holy Thursday with the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In the Orthodox Christian tradition the season is called the Great Lent and begins on ‘Clean Monday’.
The ceremony of the blessing and distribution of the ashes is one of the best attended ceremonies of the church year. People are very attracted to the tangible nature of the ashes. They like things they can see and touch, like candles on Candlemas Day and Saint Blaise’s Day, like ashes and like kissing the crucifix on Good Friday. We priests, trained to be cerebral, sometimes watch in dismay as the faithful ignore the sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass and fall over each other to get ashes smeared on their carefully coiffured heads and painted faces. These candles and ashes, we protest, are mere ‘sacramentals’, not sacraments but the faithful are hard to herd unless they agree with the shepherd where they wish to be herded to or from. One ancient practice which might humble us is that of smearing the ashes on the tonsure of clerics. The tonsure is the bald spot commonly portrayed on the crown of a monk’s head. Though the practice of tonsure had been discontinued, I have, by natural development, acquired ample room on forehead and on tonsure for the application of ashes.
The origins of this Day of Ashes (Dies Cinerum) is thought to date back to the early centuries of the Christian Church. The number forty had biblical resonance in the stories of Moses, of Elijah, of John the Baptist and of Jesus. It signifies a generation or simply a long time. Lent was not always forty days. There were different traditions of fasting at different times and places. Ashes and sackcloth were common biblical symbols of repentance. The ashes used on Wednesday are the burnt palms of the previous Palm Sunday, a practice with its own symbolism. Occasionally, fasting was restricted to the days when the bridegroom was taken away, i.e. in the last days of Holy Week. Fasting is still restricted to weekdays, not Sundays, otherwise you end up fasting too many days. Our word for Friday in the Irish language is Aoine meaning ‘fast’ and the word for Wednesday is Ceadaoine, meaning the first fast. Fasting on Wednesday and Friday were built into the everyday language of our spiritual ancestors.
Saint Augustine said that if we wish our prayers to be heard we should give them wings of fasting and almsgiving. For most of the year we try to dominate the world. Lent is a season to try to dominate the self. The horizon of each life will one day touch the grave and ashes smeared on our public foreheads are a crash course in this realism, a reminder of the dust that will one day anoint our bodies for the last time. Fasting and almsgiving are time-honoured spiritual disciplines. Lent is stock-taking time, time out for the spirit, time to, ‘give up your ould sins’. Re-discover it