Lent 2022: Five things you might not know about Ash Wednesday

Rio Carnival, Mardi Gras and Pancake Day are all connected 

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith
Wednesday 02 March 2022 09:27
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A woman has her head marked with a paste made from ashes on Ash Wednesday in the Philippines
A woman has her head marked with a paste made from ashes on Ash Wednesday in the Philippines

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, when many Catholics will attend mass and receive a cross on their forehead made of ashes burned from the previous years’ Palm Sunday crosses. Following Shrove Tuesday, Lent marks a period of abstinence and fasting before Easter celebrations.

Lent doesn’t last for 40 days

Technically Lent lasts for 46 days, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Each Sunday is not included in this period of fasting or abstinence by many Catholic communities, however, as the day is used to commemorate the resurrection of Christ and is given over to celebrations and feasting. The 40 days of Lent is generally seen as marking the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

Rio Carnival, Mardi Gras and Pancake Day are all connected

Rio Carnival is a five day celebration filled with music, Samba, elaborate costumes and celebration, starting five days before Ash Wednesday and ending on Shrove Tuesday, or “fat Tuesday” as it is known outside of the UK. Shrove is derived from the Old English word “Shrive”, which means “absolve”. Mardi Gras literally means “fat Tuesday” in French, and falls on the same day as Pancake Day. The thing they all have in common? Shrove or fat Tuesday is seen as the last day to feast on richer, fattier foods and celebrate before the abstinence of Lent begins.

There are some interesting exceptions to the ‘no meat on Fridays’ rule

Lent represents a period of fasting and abstinence in which strict observers do not eat meat on Fridays and eat fish instead. There are a few interesting exceptions to the rule however; in the late 1600s a group of monks in France classified a Puffin as a fish, as its “natural habitat was as much terrestrial as aquatic,” allowing it to be eaten on Fridays. The National Bishops’ Conference approved a New Orleans archbishop’s declaration two years ago that alligators may be eaten on Fridays, because it “is considered in the fish family,” and in 2006 a number of bishops in America gave their Irish heritage worshipers special dispensation to eat meat on one Friday during Lent. This was because St Patrick’s Day, which in America carries the tradition of eating corned beef brisket, fell on a Friday.

Ashes symbolise the life cycle, grief, and penitence

The ashes used to mark a cross on a person’s forehead symbolises the belief that God created man from ashes and that man returns to ashes after death. The ritual is usually marked by a priest saying: “Remember, man is dust, and unto dust you shall return”. The ashes are also seen as a mark of sorrow and grief for personal sins and as a symbol of repentance. Some like to keep the ashes on their foreheads all day, but it is also common to wipe the ashes off after mass.

You don’t have to be Christian to join in

The ritual of Ash Wednesday and the ensuing period of Lent is predominantly observed by Catholics, but people outside the religion also use it as an opportunity to give up a single indulgence such as chocolate for the period of time.

This year Rt Rev Seamus Cunningham, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle Diocese, has made it clear anyone can also take part in Ash Wednesday ceremonies if they want to.

He said in a statement: “This is an important day, but it’s not just for Catholics. Anyone can receive blessed ashes on Ash Wednesday, whether Christian or not, to express their desire to grow spiritually and to turn away from their failings, their areas of weakness and brokenness, in favour of seeking the healing and wholeness that only God can give. You are welcome to come along to any Ash Wednesday service and join us in taking this simple, but profound step.”

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