I wrote this for my RCIAers a few years ago.  I thought I'd share it with you all again this year:

Ash Wednesday is the day that Lent begins. Ash Wednesday is officially a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Catholics. Other liturgical faiths may also follow many of these Lenten traditions.

Lent consists of Forty days before Easter. We skip Sundays in the western Church because Sundays are always a day to joyfully celebrate the Resurrection. Because of this Lent always begins on a Wednesday. Traditionally there is no fasting or self-denial on Sunday, only rejoicing, even during Lent.

Since the Day of Ashes always falls on Wednesday it has become known as Ash Wednesday. It is called the Day of Ashes, because the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. Burning palm fronds that have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday makes the ashes. A priest, a practice having been used in God’s rituals since the time of Moses, blesses the ashes.

We can find numerous biblical examples of people putting dust or ashes on their foreheads. In The Bible, a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. By having our foreheads marked with the sign of the cross we wear a symbol that we belong to Jesus Christ who died on the Cross. It is also an imitation of the seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. Throughout Lent you will hear much about baptism. The season is truly centered on this important sacrament. I hope to show this correlation throughout the Lenten season.

But why “ashes?” We can find biblical examples of the use of ashes. Biblical societies relied on wood fires for heating and cooking. Keeping the ashes under control was a major housekeeping task. If a person were preoccupied with something serious they may not have tended to that housekeeping task as usual. A family in mourning may have been reminded by a visitor that they had ashes on their faces. Over time the ashes became a sign of remorse, repentance and mourning. Even as society has changed this remained a symbol, as those in mourning would purposely put ashes on their faces.

During Lent we mourn our sins. We repent of them. Moreover we are surely in mourning for our apparent loss of Christ as he died on the cross until his return on Easter. As we enter this period of sober reflection, self-examination and spiritual redirection we wear our cross on the first day of Lent. We wear our cross as a witness to our faith. We wear our cross as a statement of our love for Christ. We wear our cross as a visible symbol of the invisible but indelible mark on our soul created in baptism. We wear our cross because we are in mourning but we are hopeful--we are faithful
 
 
Do you normally “give up” something for Lent? I know a lot of my Protestant brothers and sisters do, while others do not. Even those of us for whom this is common practice may not understand exactly why we give up something for Lent. Sure, it can be tied to penance. Perhaps a small symbol of the suffering Christ endured for us.

The three pillars of Lent- prayer, fasting and almsgiving- do not really address the practice of “giving up” something. Fasting is similar but is its own practice. But what are the purposes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as well as the practice of “giving up?” Quite simply: to bring us closer to God. No matter how close we believe we are to God, there are always obstacles. As long as we are here on earth something will keep us from being completely with Him. Lent is a time to bring us closer to God.

Prayer. Do we spend enough time in prayer? Even if we prayed 24 hours a day, would it be enough? As we add prayer- as we focus more intently on our prayers- we get a little closer to God. So, this year I am adding more prayer to my daily life. Not just prayers of petition, but adoration, thanksgiving and reparation, as well.  During Advent I added Daily Mass.  For Lent I am keeping up my Daily Mass attendance and adding a rosary, or other prayer, each day. 

Fasting. Besides prayer, exercises of devotions and charity, and denying oneself (“giving up”), Canon Law prescribes abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1434-1439 and Code of Canon Law 1249-1254) Fasting during Lent consists of one full meal and two lighter meals, not to equal one full meal, to maintain one's strength. We are to consider the pangs of hunger as a reminder during Lent of our hunger for God. I already abstain from meat so I will fast on Fridays during Lent.

Almsgiving. Charity. This is such an important pillar. As we do for others we become closer to God. Isn't this what Jesus did? Almsgiving just makes sense. I will add some act of charity every day. It might seem like a small gesture but I believe it will make a difference.  Can you think of small acts of charity to perform daily during Lent?

Now to the “giving up.” My suggestion for someone who is considering what to give up for Lent is to think about what might be coming between you and God. One year I gave up coffee. Yup. You might think that coffee is not big enough to come between a person and God. It is.

Daily, before I gave up coffee for Lent, I would proclaim, “I love coffee!” I would drink it every day. I would spend between $2 and $5 a day on that precious cup. I would have conversations with other coffee lovers that could last half an hour. Did that come between God and me? Consider that I could have proclaimed every day, “ I love Jesus!” I could have taken that money and donated it to any worthy charity. The coffee lovers and I could have spent that 30 minutes talking about God; the Scripture reading of the day; what Father's homily meant to us last Sunday. So, I gave up coffee. Every time I was around someone who had been to Starbucks, the scent would be a reminder of this small offering of my suffering.  On Easter I drove right past an open Starbucks as I headed over to my family's house for lunch.  Not long after, I did finally enjoy a cup of coffee again, but I knew to give thanks for such a luxury.

So I wonder, what are you doing for Lent? Are you giving up anything?  Adding prayer and/or charitable acts to your day?  We have a few more days to discern this.  Some people do not share this information, feeling it is between them and God.  If, however, you don’t mind sharing I’d love to hear (read) what you’re doing.  Especially if you can tell us how what you are giving up comes between you and God right now, I think it might help others who are still “preparing for Lent.” 

Please post your comment here or on the Preparing for Lent group page (soon to be Lent 2011).

Lent 2011 Discussion Page, FaceBook group.  

If you have not joined our group, please do so!  We'd love to have you!

Lent 2011, FaceBook group.

BethAnne.
 

    Beth Anne

    throws metal with mittens on in the dead of winter and listens to the cold as it echoes down the streets and into her bones.

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