In preparation for Lent I thought I would provide some information on the history of the preparing for the beginning of Lent. While we are familiar with Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent, we should also remember “Shrovetide,” the preceding week. Shrovetide is the English equivalent for “carnivale,” which is derived from the Latin words carnem levare, meaning “to take away the flesh” or carne valle, “farewell to meat.” In Germany, this period is called “Fasching,” and in parts of the United States, particularly Louisiana, Mardi gras (in French, “fat Tuesday”). While these days were seen as the last chance for merriment, and unfortunately sometimes taken to the excess, Shrovetid
e was the time to cast off things of the flesh and to prepare spiritually for Lent.
The English term provides the best meaning for this period. “To shrive” meant to hear confessions. In the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” (c AD 1000), during Shrovetide, the faithful were urged to confess their sins and receive absolution, i.e., be shriven, and then do penances, which would last into Lent. To motivate the people, special plays or masques were performed which portrayed the passion of Our Lord or final judgment.
Shrovetide also condoned the partaking of pleasures from which a person would abstain during Lent. Shrove Tuesday had a special significance in England. Families prepared and ate pancakes so they could deplete their eggs, milk, butter, and fat which were part of the Lenten fast. Also, some areas of the church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
For this same reason, Easter was celebrated with decorated eggs (particularly ornamented in Eastern European countries) and fresh sweet breads. Another interesting note surrounding the Easter egg, just as an aside, is that it symbolizes the resurrection: just as a little chick pecks its way out of the egg shell to emerge to new life, so Christ emerged from the tomb to new and everlasting life.
Having completed Shrovetide, Ash Wednesday began the holy season of Lent. The word Lent derives from the Anglo-Saxon words “lencten,” meaning “spring,” and “lenctentid,” which literally means not only “spride” but also was the word for “March,” the month in which the majority of Lent falls. Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter. Like spring, Lent is meant to be a time of renewal and rebirth in the faith. For this reason, making a good confession and receiving absolution were part of the Shrovetide preparation, so that the penances and spiritual exercises during Lent would facilitate a person’s renewal. Moreover, the whole church is mindful of those individuals who are preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil.
Since the earliest times of the church, some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter existed. Lent became more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in 313. The Council of Nicea (325), in its disciplinary canons, noted that two provincial synods should be held each year, “one before the 40 days of Lent.” St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Pope St. Leo (d. 461) all mention the 40-day period Lenten preparation. One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.
Of course, the number 40 always has had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. For example, in the Old Testament, “Moses stayed (on Mount Sinai) with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2). Our present 40-day period then begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at the Easter Vigil, excluding Sundays. (Note the new liturgical norms indicate that “Lent” ends at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, but the Lenten period of abstinence and fasting continue until the Easter Vigil.)
The liturgical use of ashes originated in Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. For example, prophesying the fall of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3). Jesus Himself also made reference to ashes: Referring to towns that refused to repent of sin although they had witnessed the miracles and heard the good news, Our Lord said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Mt 11:21).
The early church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. For example, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession to do his penance. Eventually, the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which dates at least to the eighth century. In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” And with that profound sign, we commit ourselves on a 40-day period of renewal.
Our hearts need to be on fire to use what the Church sets apart as a period of renewal and renew the face of the earth with the Holy Spirit.