Ash Wednesday: Christians fast, repent and begin Lenten season 2018


If you know someone from the Western Christian tradition, perhaps at work or in your neighborhood, use this icebreaker: Do you observe Ash Wednesday and Lent? How does your family mark the occasion?


Girl holding sign, 'Ashes here,' on busy city street

Congregations across the nation are taking to the streets, offering ashes on-the-go to busy Christians. Photo by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 14: The pancakes, paczkis, blintzes—and, for those who thought ahead, Valentine’s Day treats—have been eaten, and today, the solemn Lenten season begins for Western Christians—on Ash Wednesday. Starting today, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter, in representation of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. On Ash Wednesday, able adults fast, and all able Christians abstain from meat and practice repentance. Records indicate that from the earliest centuries, the days preceding Jesus Christ’s death were filled with a solemnity of fasting and penitence.

Did you know? The Catholic Church permits ashes on the forehead for anyone who wishes to receive them—not just baptized Catholics. Many Protestant and Anglican churches also include this rite at the start of Lent and more congregations add the service each year.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians recall their mortality and express sorrow for sins. Traditionally, palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned into ashes for Ash Wednesday services, and the ashes are then blessed; however, many churches today now conduct these services using ashes purchased from religious-supply companies. The custom of clergy placing ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful is rooted in the practice of doing so as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day, as part of their spiritual reflections. The practice of ashes is, generally, kept by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians.

FOR KIDS: Help children to better understand the purpose of Lent with Sacrifice Beans (learn more here). Alternatively, try a “Lent chain,” for which children create 40 pieces of paper inscribed with kind acts and prayers; each day of Lent, the children cut a link and perform the day’s act or prayer.


Wooden number blocks 14 and February

This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan. Lent similarly marks 40 days—not counting Sundays. On Ash Wednesday, adult Catholics who are able practice fasting: only one full, non-meat meal throughout the day, along with two smaller meals that, combined, don’t equate in portion to the full meal.

VALENTINE’S DAY ADVISORY: Although Saint Valentine is a formally recognized saint in the Roman Catholic Church, many church leaders are relaying the necessity of keeping the day solemn—even though, for the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday will fall on the same day. It is being recommended that Valentine’s celebrations in schools and at home be pushed to Fat Tuesday or a weekend day that precedes or follows February 14. (Read more in the Chicago Sun-Times, in the UK’s Catholic Herald Online and at

ASHES ON-THE-GO: Many Christians commemorate Ash Wednesday by receiving ashes on their foreheads—a tradition held since the Middle Ages—but in today’s busy world, more and more people may be unable to attend a weekday mass, and so congregations are heading to the streets or delivering ashes in “drive-thru” style. As congregations come up with new ideas to bring the church to the people, pastors and laypersons are visiting train stations, malls, public parks, coffee shops and college campuses to mark the foreheads of the faithful.

 CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent just a few days after Western Christians do, this year, and in 2018, February 19 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals. (Find a recipe for Lagana Bread, a traditional Greek Clean Monday favorite, here.

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Assumption of Mary, Dormition of Theotokos: Christians honor Virgin Mary

Painting Mary falling asleep

A depiction of the “falling asleep” of Mary. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and both Eastern and Western Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition, though—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

Did you know? In 588 CE, the Emperor Maurice officially adopted the commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin) into the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Empire.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.


Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.


The Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has announced a contest, open to individuals of all faith traditions, for submission of a video, photo or thesis that best captures the Orthodox Church’s commitment to interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Three winners will each be awarded $500, in the categories of “Original video,” “Original photography” and “M.A. thesis.” Submissions must be turned in by September 21, 2017. (Find more details here.)

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Palm Sunday: Christians begin Holy Week with fronds and Jesus’ Jerusalem entry

Sunlight through palm fronds on tree

Palm fronds. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, APRIL 9: Christians around the world enter Holy Week in preparation for Easter on Palm Sunday, marked by the ancient story of Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem. Biblical accounts and artists through the centuries describe overjoyed people in the streets of Jerusalem celebrating Jesus’s entry by throwing down of cloaks and palm branches in his path, in imitation of a custom used only for those of highest honor. Described in all four Gospels, Jesus’ ride was a popular event. Yet how quickly events will turn within a week, Christians recall today, amid the waving fronds.

As Jesus rode slowly into Jerusalem, according to Christian tradition, the gathered crowd began singing from Psalms: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Today, Christians regard this entry as the fulfillment of a prediction in Zacharias; as such, many churches distribute their own fresh palm branches. In climates where palm branches aren’t available, other tree branches—yew, box and willow, for example—may be distributed instead. A church-wide procession often follows the blessing of the branches.

What happens to those branches after they’re distributed? In many congregations, members save them in their homes. Traditional Catholics tend to tuck them behind a crucifix. Some countries pride themselves on the historical tradition of tying elaborate shapes with the fresh palms. In Mexico and Italy, especially, many will weave the palms into elaborate patterns and shapes and hang them above holy pictures, behind a crucifix or on the wall.  In Elche, Spain—the site of the largest palm grove in Europe—palm leaves whitened and dried, after which skilled craftsmen braid them into extravagant shapes and figures.

Interested in braiding your own palm fronds? Learn how, with help from this YouTube video tutorial.

In many churches, the branches from today’s services are saved until the next year’s Ash Wednesday, when they are burned as a source of ashes.

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Posadas Navidenas: Mexican Catholics mark 9 colorful nights

Pile of tamales wrapped in strings

Tamales take center stage at many Las Posadas meals. Photo by Stefani, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16: The lively nights known as Las Posadas begin in Mexico, Guatemala and parts of the United States, bringing tasty dishes, cheerful carols and unified communities. A nine-night celebration originally from Spain, Posadas Navidenas begins December 16 and ends on December 24. Posada, Spanish for “lodging,” or “accommodation,” reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for a safe, warm place to welcome the infant Jesus. Las Posadas has been a tradition throughout Mexico for 400 years.

Each night of Posadas Navidenas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood. The procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, but as is prearranged, the homeowners turn the visitors away. Finally, a host family for the evening (or, in some regions, a church) welcomes the visitors inside, and everyone kneels before a Nativity scene to pray. (Wikipedia has details.) After prayer, traditional tamales and ponche navideno are typically served with rompope, a drink similar to eggnog. Children may take turns hitting a five- or seven-pointed pinata, and the pinata is often filled with dried fruit, sugar sticks, nuts and candies.

A boy hits a Las Posadas pinata. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A boy hits a Las Posadas pinata. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


As processions slowly move down the streets each night of Las Posadas, additional members join the children. In most processions, select children dress as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels—or, the children carry images of these holy figures. Musicians sometimes follow the group, which sings at each doorstep while beckoning for a place to stay.

Las Posadas processions are gaining popularity in the Southwest United States, but the reenactments can be organized in any community.

Did you know? The popular rompope drink is believed to have been created by nuns in the convent of Santa Clara, in Puebla.

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Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 150 years later, Mary still infallibly pure

Painting of woman in yellow-hued clouds with angels and biblical creatures at her feet and surrounding her

The Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, DECEMBER 8: As the weeks of Advent continue, Catholic Christians pause to focus on the Virgin Mary in the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic dogma holds that the Virgin Mary was born via a sinless conception, and that she is without Original Sin. Around the world, this feast day is greeted with fireworks, processions and celebratory liturgies.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation by Pope Pius IX, as Roman Catholic dogma, that: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The statement is considered infallible.


A feast for the conception of Mary was being observed in the Eastern Christian Church as early as the fifth century, though the original title of the feast referred to Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary. Popularity of the feast increased in the seventh century, and the conception of Mary was being described as “immaculate” from the 11th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Today, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Mary was free from original sin prior to birth, but rather that she is filled with grace. Following the Great Schism of 1054, some sects of Western Christianity embraced Mary’s sinless conception.

Did you know? Catholics hold that Mary is the Patroness of the United States.

A Holy Day of Obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception requires that all Catholics attend Mass for the occasion. (Learn more from Fish Eaters.) Mary is seen as a guide on the path to salvation; a beacon of hope in times of conflict and doubt.


A designated candle for Mary sits at the center of the table as the scent of freshly baked gingerbread Moravian Spritz wafts through the air: the Marian feast brings to mind the aromas of cinnamon and myrrh, as many believed that Mary emitted these sweet smells. Families or parishes honoring the feast may decorate in blue or with symbols of her purity, such as lilies or roses. For additional resources, prayers, recipes and children’s activity suggestions, visit Women for Faith and Family or Catholic Culture.


The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. will feature through April 2015 an exhibit of portraits of the Virgin Mary, greatly varied and spanning through six centuries. (National Geographic has the story.) Entitled “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” the exhibit showcases 70 works of art—some lent from such esteemed establishments as the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.

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Transfiguration of Jesus: Christians unite for ‘greatest miracle;’ prayer for Iraq

Interior of Cathedral

Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Krakow, Poland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 6: An event shrouded in mystery and revered by St. Thomas Aquinas as “the greatest miracle” is recalled by both Eastern and Western Christians today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. While Catholic and most Othodox churches mark the feast day on August 6, many American Protestant congregations (among them United Methodist and some Lutheran churches) celebrated Jesus’s transfiguration much earlier this year as part of their Epiphany season.

Three Gospels tell of Jesus taking three disciples—Peter, James and John—along with him on an ascent of a mountain. Once at their destination, the prophets Elijah and Moses appear. A voice in the clouds says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The disciples fall to their knees in wonder.

While heading back down the mountain, the Bible describes Jesus as telling his disciples not to speak of what they had seen until he has risen from the dead. The disciples—confused by the words, “risen from the dead”—discuss the meaning of this puzzling experience.

Theologians have argued for centuries about the metaphysics of the transfiguration—whether his garments became white and his face shone like the sun, or perhaps the apostles’ senses were transfigured so that they could perceive the true glory of God. Nonetheless, Christian churches agree that the transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor. The mountain represents the meeting point of human and God; of earth and heaven.

For an Orthodox perspective on the holiday, learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; or, for a more Western perspective, visit the Global Catholic Network.)


Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Rafael Sako, along with Aid to the Church in Need, has called upon all Christians to unite in prayer for peace in Iraq on the Feast of the Transfiguration. For inspiration, read Patriarch Sako’s prayer, in this article from the National Catholic Register.

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Feast of St. Columba of Iona

Pilgrims on the island of Iona off Scotland’s northwest coast. Photograph by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

MONDAY, JUNE 9: You don’t have to travel to Scotland to honor St. Columba, the brilliant 6th-century Irish monk who still is inspiring pilgrims around the world. In fact, wherever they live in the world, descendants of the Clans MacCallum, Malcom and MacKinnon all claim spiritual connection to Columba. Those first two families bear echoes of his name, which was spelled in many different forms. The latter family, the MacKinnons, were abbots of Iona through a number of generations.

Iona Abbey. Photo by John Hile.

Of course, the epicenter of St. Columba spirituality today is the tiny isle of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island’s lore and legacy are spread worldwide by the Iona Community of men and women who try to follow the spiritual ideals inherited from St. Columba’s community. Iona has produced a remarkably influential circle of teachers and musicians. ReadTheSpirit magazine has featured interviews with the Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell, long associated with the Iona Community.

The Isle of Iona still attracts swarms of visitors during the summer months. Anyone can travel to the island and tour the sites administered now by Historic Scotland, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Parks Service. There is a pleasant hotel on the island, which is open to the public. But, visitors hoping to experience one of the traditional Iona retreats in the abbey need to register long in advance with the Iona Community, starting by checking out information on Iona’s website.

Care to see a bit of the island for yourself? ReadTheSpirit took a fascinating pilgrimage to Iona in 2007! Check out the series, including videos.


The Irish-born Columba studied at Clonard Abbey as a youth, amid others who would become some of the most influential figures in Irish Christian history. Of the thousands who studied at Clonard during the 6th century, a mere 12 stood out in the crowd and became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland; Columba was one of these 12. (Wikipedia has details.) St. Columba went on to be ordained as a priest and founded several monasteries. However, he also was accused of committing a crime that led to many deaths—and, in his efforts to “right a wrong,” cemented his name in history.

According to tradition, St. Columba copied the Book of Psalms while studying at Clonard Abbey, intending to keep his copy. When his instructor demanded the copy be handed over, Columba refused—and battle broke out. Rather than be excommunicated, St. Columba suggested he become a missionary in Scotland, to spread Christianity there. With 12 men in tow, Columba traveled to Scotland and didn’t stop until he reached a place where he could no longer see his native country: the island of Iona. Great success ensued, and soon, the man who had once been on the brink of excommunication was converting hundreds, eventually winning the affections of the pagan King Bridei and playing a role in Scottish politics. (Historic UK has more.) The “Vita Columbae” documents Columba’s miracles (which include an encounter with a Loch Ness Monster); his prophesies (which include one of his own death); and his apparitions. Columba also left behind several monasteries and hundreds of books when, according to records, he left the earthly world with such a smile on his face that those around him knew of the angels he had seen.

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