Most people associate Ash Wednesday as the day after Pancake Day, however, for others it is the start of Lent. This is the beginning of the 40 day fast when people emulate Jesus Christ’s period of fasting prior to his public ministry. During that time, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and resisted all the temptation that Satan presented him with. Jesus told the Devil, “Get behind me, Satan” which is a well known saying. So, the idea of fasting is about self-control and denying oneself of life’s pleasures, like Jesus did.
According to the Bible, Jesus did many things during his public ministry, the first was being baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan River when he was 30 years old. From then on, Jesus gave up three years to conduct his public ministry and perform miracles, such as curing many from diseases, preaching the truth, teaching people about the Kingdom of God (Heaven) and feeding thousands. It was also when he decided who he would choose as his disciples. These were 12 men who learned what Jesus was doing, who decided to give up everything to follow him and learn from him.
The history of Ash Wednesday
The concept of people fasting can be found from 2,000 years ago. This early idea of a fast was executed between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Christians would forfeit eating all food and drink, sustaining only one meal a day. The two-day period is significant as Good Friday was when Jesus was crucified and Easter Sunday was when Jesus resurrected.
Around the same time of the First Council of Nicaea, which was the first council that represented the international worship of Christianity, apostles would wear sack cloths and cover themselves in ash. This was because they were submitting to penance as the cloths were irritating on their skin, thus punishing themselves for their sins. Using ashes in church symbolises many things, some of them being penance and mourning. Wearing both was said to be a humiliating act, which demonstrated the good faith of their repentance.
Nowadays, instead of pouring ash on themselves, people receive ash crosses on their forehead during the church service on Ash Wednesday.
How is it observed?
This is a time for Christians to reflect on any sins, to confess and pray. Many pray to look for absolution from God. The priest and people attended the service will listen to any sermons or prayers in silence, quietly confessing their sins. Some priests draw a cross on people’s foreheads, the ashes are made from the previous year’s palm leaves.
Then begins the fasting, whilst some people may follow the history of Lent and fast for 40 days, others may only fast Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In Eastern churches, there are strict rules on what people should fast. For example, foods like meat, eggs, fish and oil are forbidden on week days. Their participation in Lent starts on Forgiveness Sunday, where after their service, they ask for forgiveness from the attending people, than fasting begins. At the end of Lent, they will commemorate with Holy Pascha where people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. They do this with hymns and a feast to break their fast.
Whereas, in Western churches the strict fasting rules have been in decline and people usually prohibit themselves from eating guilty pleasure food, like chocolate. This article, written by Emily Shirley, suggests that the decrease in Lent popularity in Western churches may be because they do it individually, however, in Eastern churches they do it as a community. There is also the fact that fasting does not always have to be food. People can choose to give up hobbies or bad habits for the coming weeks. Unlike the Eastern community, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and this is when they have the ash crosses on their foreheads.
There are many other religions that also celebrate Lent, such as Lutheran which is a branch of Protestantism, and Presbyterian which is an early religion from Reformation.
Are you going to celebrate Lent this year? If so, let us know on our Instagram page @thestudentaspect