Ash Wednesday: Christians fast, repent and begin Lenten season 2019

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, MARCH 6: The pancakes, paczkis, blintzes all have been eaten—and today, the solemn Lenten season begins for Western Christians. It’s Ash Wednesday.

Starting today, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter. Western Christians (Roman Catholics, Protestants and others in the “Western” branches of the church) are called to repent and reflect. Many “give up something” for Lent. But the Western tradition is not nearly as extreme as the dietary rules followed by Eastern Christians, who begin their Fast of Great Lent on Monday March 11 this year—an observance known as Clean Monday.

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.

In fact, Lent is more popular than ever nationwide in the U.S.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In his book Our Lent: The Things We Carry, ReadTheSpirit magazine Editor David Crumm writes: “Observance of Lent is booming across the U.S., including nontraditional groups and evangelical churches. Even Catholic parishes nationwide are seeing a rise in season-long observances. This makes sense in an era of turbulent change in our world. A return to spiritual practices—from praying daily to following the centuries-old traditions of Lent—is a journey that reconnects us with the timeless wisdom of our faith.”

Where do we see signs of the vitality of the Lenten season in 2019? First, we see it in ongoing survey research about the religious practices of ordinary Americans. Then, we already are seeing it in news headlines.

One example: The evangelical social-action movement Sojourners is urging followers to take Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season seriously this year. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis has published an open letter about this effort on the group’s website.

And—from the spiritual to the strictly commercial realm—Ad Age magazine just reported that the Gorton’s seafood company is preparing a clever new version of its TV ad campaign featuring male mermaids—Mer-Bros. Ad Age reports, “The updated ads come as Gorton’s and other seafood brands gear up for Lent, a busy time for the brand because people often eat more seafood while abstaining from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays.”

This is a very serious matter in America’s multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry, as well. Readers Digest magazine recently published a lengthy story about the history of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, which was created many years ago to meet the preferences of Catholic customers. And today? The magazine reports that about a quarter of the annual Filet-O-Fish sales are during the 40 days of Lent.

A 40-Day Companion for Lent

Many of our readers, over the years, have told us they enjoy reading Crumm’s book during Lent—a book that combines both inspirational reflections on Bible readings as well as a sometimes light-hearted look at contemporary life, today. The book is widely available via online bookstores. Here is the Amazon link for paperback and Kindle.

What’s the book about?

Our Lent is a 40-day, 40-chapter invitation to enjoy that combination of faith and self-guided reflection. Each daily chapter explores something Jesus showed us, including: coins, basins, bowls, bread, cups, swords and tables. In each chapter, the author shares a biblical story from Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and explains the significance of the tangible things Jesus lifted up for his followers. Then, each chapter connects the Bible lesson with our own daily lives as well as the lives of men and women who are celebrated in our culture, including the spiritual writer Thomas Merton, the actress and singer Judy Garland, the country musician Merle Haggard and even the beloved Cat in the Hat. After 40 days of connecting scripture with modern life, readers will find themselves freshly aware of the many blessings we have received and the challenges we face in helping to heal the world around us.

 

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Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: Christians prepare for, begin Lenten season

Mardi Gras mask sitting in pile of colorful paper ribbons

Photo by annca, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28 and WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1: Haul out the eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday! During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanian homes serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries—but all reflect the old Christian tradition of using up the rich foods in one’s home before starting the fasting season of Lent. Then, following Fat Tuesday, more than a billion Western Christians begin fasting for the start of the season of Lent. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday in solemnity.

Did you know? Originally, Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, in French) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning “to confess.” 

MARDI GRAS: CARNE LEVARE VS. CARNIVAL

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival, while a customary eating of salted meat takes a literal meaning to the day in Iceland.

Pile of rounded donuts covered in powdered sugar

A variety of sweet breads, ranging from paczkis to pancakes to pastries, is traditionally baked for Fat Tuesday. Photo by freestocks.org, courtesy of Flickr

PANCAKES & RACES: Gorging on paczkis (pronounced pounch-keys) may be customary in the United States, but the custom of eating pancakes in the United Kingdom takes place on such a massive scale that the tradition has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” The most famous pancake race has been held annually since 1445 in Olney at Buckinghamshire. Legend has it that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of the time until she heard the church bells ringing for service, and she raced out of the house while still carrying her pan with pancakes. Today in Olney, contestants of the pancake race must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course; all participants are required to wear an apron and scarf. A church service always follows the races.

MARDI GRAS and CARNIVAL 2017: Parades and festivities start gearing up days before Fat Tuesday, and Mardi Gras New Orleans offers an in-depth look at the rich history behind this American party (along with parade routes, photos, a countdown and much more). Carnival in Venice—a more formal, period-era celebration than the parties in Rio and New Orleans—is thought to have been started in 1162, and today draws approximately 3 million visitors to Venice annually. (View a slideshow of Venetian festivities, here.) Staying home on Mardi Gras? Check out recipes for everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to king cake at Taste of Home and Southern Living.

ASH WEDNESDAY (& CLEAN MONDAY)

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although many churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. 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 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.

CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent the same week as Western Christians, this year, and in 2017, February 27 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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Meatfare Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday: Orthodox Christians prepare for Lent

Bowl of wings and dairy dip on wooden table

Orthodox Christians consume meat and dairy for the last time on the final two Sundays before Great Lent, and will not resume consumption until after Pascha (Easter). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19 and SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26: Lent is approaching fast for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and on February 19, Eastern Orthodox churches take initial steps toward their traditional Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday. After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter); in one week, Cheesefare Sunday will discontinue the partaking of dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday—this year, on February 27.

MEATFARE SUNDAY (AND THE LAST JUDGMENT )

Though commonly referred to as Meatfare Sunday, this day is more formally known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In services, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ, in Matthew, refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

Looking to cook up a mouthwatering meat dish (or two) today?  Find recipes at Allrecipes, Southern Living and Food Network.

CHEESEFARE SUNDAY (AND FORGIVENESS)

Great Lent commences for Eastern Christians on the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—but the faithful already are cleaning their slates (and their plates) today, by asking forgiveness and eliminating dairy from their diets until Pascha. In the Orthodox church, this year, February 26 is Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday).

On the search for a few tasty dairy recipes? Find recipes for all courses from Eating Well, Food Network and Dairy Goodness, a recipe collection from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Meat hasn’t been consumed since last Sunday, on Meatfare sunday, but dairy products will be consumed for the final time today. Throughout Great Lent and until Pascha (Easter), Eastern Christians will observe these fasting customs with only occasional exemptions for oil and wine—but never meat or dairy.

Starting tonight, the Vespers of Forgiveness will signal the first liturgy of Great Lent; the service will end when attendees ask forgiveness from both fellow congregation members and the priest. If you have Orthodox friends and colleagues, this is a moving liturgy to attend, as the process of forgiveness often is deeply personal for the faithful.

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Clean Monday: Eastern Orthodox Christians kick off Lent with a joyous holiday

Kite flying above water at sunset

A kite soars above Alimos Beach on Clean Monday in Greece. On this holiday, colorful kites fill the skies. Photo by Robert Wallace, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 14: The Lenten season officially begins for Eastern Orthodox Christians with Clean Monday, a bright, joyous holiday celebrated with a special fervor in Greece and Cyprus. Eastern Orthodox Christians embrace the fasting season in merriment, as the Gospel instructs: When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance … But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret … (Matthew 6:16-18). Across Greece today, soft lagana bread—a Clean Monday treat, baked especially for this day—is par for the course, as are numerous shellfish dishes and a variety of other permissible foods. Many families gather to head outdoors, enjoying picnics and flying kites.

Did you know? While the 2016 Western Christian Lent began with Ash Wednesday on February 10, the movable date of Easter—and the method of counting 40 days in Lent—makes up the difference of date calculation between the Eastern Christian Pascha and Western Christian Easter.

Yesterday, Eastern Christians observed Cheesefare Sunday, when the faithful consumed dairy for the final time until Pascha. Eight days ago, adherents observed Meatfare Sunday—and until Pascha, meat will not be consumed. Today, Orthodox families begin the fast of Great Lent and avoid meat, dairy, wine and oil (with a few days of exception during Lent).

The entire week following Clean Monday is known throughout the Eastern Church as Clean Week, when it’s customary for men and women to attend Confession and clean their homes.

Interested in baking lagana? Find a recipe at the blog Lemon & Olives, or at The Greek Vegan.

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Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin the Lenten journey toward Easter

Woman with glasses standing with eyes closed, hand with white sleeve touching her forehead

A woman receives ashes on her forehead at an Ash Wednesday service. Photo John Ragai, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10: Ashes on-the-go?

As the majority of the world’s Christians enter Lent, fasting and abstinence open the season leading to Christ’s Passion and Easter. Today, many Christians commemorate Ash Wednesday by receiving ashes on their foreheads—a tradition held since the Middle Ages. In today’s busy world, however, 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.

For Ash Wednesday services, though it is custom to burn palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to prepare the ashes,  the process can be messy for those not accustomed to the procedure. As a result, the majority of churches these days order ashes in sealed containers prepared by Christan-supply companies. During Lent, Christians reflect, pray and renew their commitment to Christ.

Eastern and Western Dates: Though dates for the Eastern and Western Christian observances of Lent and Easter (Pascha) coincide some years, they fall more than one month part in 2016. This year, the Western Christian Lent begins February 10, with Easter slotted for March 27; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on March 14 and Pascha falls on May 1.

WHO ARE ‘WESTERN’ & ‘EASTERN’ CHRISTIANS?

Our reporting often refers to Western and Eastern branches of Christianity and, especially in Lent 2016, these two huge branches of Christianity around the world are on distinctively different schedules.

How many ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Christians are there? Roughly one third of the world’s population identifies as Christian. That’s 2.2 billion people, according to the worldwide study of religious populations by Pew researchers. The “Eastern” or “Orthodox” branch of Christianity usually is estimated at a little more than 250 million adherents, which means that most Christians around the world follow “Western” customs.

ASHES: DRIVE-THRU AND ‘TO-GO’

Silver bowls of ashes on wood

Bowls of ashes for Ash Wednesday services. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As more people globally have busy schedules and less free time during the week, congregations are coming up with new ideas to bring the Church to the people. In Novi, Mich., the Novi United Methodist Church will be one congregation offering “Drive-Thru Ashes” this Ash Wednesday, from 7 a.m. -11 a.m. Pastors and volunteers will provide ashes and prayers and, according to the church, people do not need to exit their vehicles to receive the services.

In 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations took to the streets with prayer and ashes for people in suburban train stations, with efforts that evolved into the global website AshesToGo.org. Here, people can find lists of participating churches and their locations, in the U.S., UK and more. Though the website has not been updated since last year, the overwhelming news is that more and more congregations are bringing Ash Wednesday services outside of church walls.

Looking for a reflective resource? Check out Our Lent: Things We Carry, a 40-day and 40-chapter inspirational book that connects stories from the life of Jesus with the real things we experience today.

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Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin Lent

Priest in purple vestments with one hand raised to forehead of woman, other in line behind her

Marking the foreheads of the faithful with ashes at Southwark Cathedral, in England. Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18: Lent commences today for more than a billion Western Christians. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, due to variances in church calendars, will start Lent about a week later following Cheesefare Sunday on February 22 (when Orthodox Christians who plan to observe the fast of Great Lent will have their last taste of cheese until Easter). February 23 is called Clean Monday, the start of that challenging fasting period for Eastern Christians.

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although most churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. 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. (Learn more from Wikipedia and Catholic.org.)

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 similar marks 40 days, not counting Sundays.

‘ASHES TO GO’
& CHINESE NEW YEAR EXEMPTIONS

In a nationwide effort to bring ashes to those too busy to attend church services, pastors and laypersons are visiting train stations, malls, public parks, coffee shops and college campuses to mark the foreheads of the faithful. From California to Minneapolis, congregations are reporting excitement for this new approach to an old ritual. Leaders report that “Ashes to Go” allows faith traditions to be carried outside the walls of the church to the places where people are on an average day. (Check out stories from ABC News and the Ashbury Park Press.)

In Manila, the Archdiocese has granted a 2015 episcopal jurisdiction exemption or dispensation from the obligation of fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday to Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics, in regard for the coinciding of Ash Wednesday with the eve of the Chinese New Year. It has been emphasized, however, that those who choose to accept the dispensation are required to engage in other forms of penance and charity.

ACTIVITIES & MORE

Families interested in counting the days of Lent can try a “Lent calendar,” similar to an Advent calendar, in which children can place a sticker on each day as it ends (a calendar can be downloaded here). Alternatively, FishEaters suggests 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.

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Shrove Tuesday: It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival and Pancake Day

Figure in elaborate costume of white and gold with gold mask

In Venice, Carnevale means elaborate masks and layered costumes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Pancake Day—all describe the massive celebration that takes place one day before the start of the Christian season of reflection and penitence known as Lent.

Make no mistake—in some countries, this colossal party is the biggest bash of the year. Roots of this festival can be traced to the pagan era, but Christians have been using the day for shriving—confessing—and cleaning out their cupboards of sugar and lard for centuries. In parts of England, traditional pancake races still take place on Shrove Tuesday, and pancakes of all flavors are served across the UK. In Rio de Janiero, Brazil—home of the world’s largest Carnival eventfestivities last for days and boast exquisite costumes, elaborate samba dances, tantalizing foods and seemingly endless parades.

Did you know? Carnival derives from the term carne levare, “to take away meat.” The term is still used in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries to refer to the approaching abstinence of Lent.

SHROVE TUESDAY IN THE CHURCH

Some Christian denominations mark Shrove Tuesday on their calendars, including Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In preparation for the start of Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray to God for assistance during the 40-day period of fasting and repentance. Some churches with daily liturgies include special Shrove Tuesday prayers.

Much of the action on this holiday unfolds at home. Hundreds of years ago, as housewives cleared their cupboards of “indulgent” foods like sugar, lard and butter before Lent, they baked treats with the rich ingredients. Before the fasting of the Lenten season, housewives prepared the pancakes and other foods that are still consumed on Shrove Tuesday. In Sweden, the semla pastry is prepared; in Lithuania, spurgo doughnuts are consumed; in Estonia, vastlakukkel sweet buns are filled with jam and eaten with whipped cream; in Poland and in Polish communities in the U.S., the paczki is a favorite treat. (Wikipedia has details.)

FAT TUESDAY, CARNIVAL, MARDI GRAS

Literally “fat Tuesday,” or “grease Tuesday,” from the French Mardi Gras, the day preceding Ash Wednesday is the stuff of legends. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday activities date to the 12th Century. One traditional story says that the 11 a.m. ringing of the church bell caught a housewife was in the midst of cooking pancakes. As a result, this woman brought her frying pan—with a pancake still inside—to church. Races that require participants to toss pancakes into the air while running have been popular across the UK ever since. In London, the Rehab Parliamentary Pancake Race gathers teams from the British Houses to raise awareness for health and social care for the disabled and marginalized.

Stack of pancakes from top with two slices of banana

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Australians love pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, as well, with many pancake fundraisers benefiting churches and charities. In Brazil and Italy, the festivities of Carnival(e) draw millions of tourists. (The International Business Times reported, with photos from Brazil. Alternatively, the Guardian captured 2015 media from Venice.) In New Orleans, Louisina, crowds flock to the French Quarter for a boisterous version of Mardi Gras.

PANCAKE RECIPES & MORE

Interested in livening up your go-to version of the pancake?

The Guardian rounded up reader recipes, with these tasty results.

English Chef Thomasina Miers suggests homemade Nutella, with more recipes here.

The Huffington Post serves up 16 pancake recipe ideas.

LIVE FROM BRAZIL …

YouTube launched a channel dedicated to the Carnaval de Salvador, the second-largest Carnival celebration in Brazil. Musical performances, Brazilian dancing and more can be viewed here.

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