LENT, the period of prayer and fasting for Christians in preparation for Easter is 40 days long.
But there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and Easter Sunday.How can that be?The answer takes us back to the earliest days of the Church.
Jesus’ original disciples, who were Jews, grew up with the idea that the Sabbath – the day of worship and rest – was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, since the account of creation in the book of Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day.
Jesus rose from the dead, however on a Sunday, the first day of the week, and the early Christians starting with the apostles (those original disciples) saw Jesus’ resurrection as a new creation and so they transferred the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.
Since all Sundays – and not simply Easter Sunday – were days to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, Christians were forbidden to fast and do other forms of penance on those days.
Therefore, when the Church expanded the period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter from a few days to 40 days (to mirror Jesus’ fasting in the desert before He began His public ministry), Sundays could not be included in the count.
Thus, in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with 6 days of fasting in each week), plus 4 extra days — Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday that follow it.
Six times six is thirty-six, plus four equals forty.And that’s how we arrive at the 40 days of Lent.
Ash Wednesday — officially known as the Day of Ashes — is a day of repentance, when Christians confess their sins and profess their devotion to God.
The ashes symbolise both death and repentance.During this period, Christians show repentance and mourning for their sins, because they believe that Jesus Christ died for them.
Ash Wednesday is inextricably linked to Easter.After all, it marks the beginning of the Lent penance period that ends on Easter Sunday.
But, even though the Easter story takes place in biblical times, the traditions of Ash Wednesday aren’t quite that old.
It dates back to the 11th century.In many churches, the ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.
On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm branches to the congregation, a reference to the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path.On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Christians fast, meaning they eat less than usual.
During these days, it is not acceptable to eat meat.But milk, fish, pulses, fruit and vegetable are allowed.
Many people keep the ashes on their forehead for the entire day as it is a sign that they are sinners and need God’s forgiveness.
Even though there is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Holy Bible but there is a tradition of donning ashes as a sign of penitence that predates Jesus.
In the Old Testament, Job repents “in dust and ashes,” and there are other associations of ashes and repentance in the books of Esther, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah.This year, the church celebrates Ash Wednesday on 2 March.
—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Mumbai, India