That curious season of Lent is upon us with its ashes and forty days and emphasis on self-denial. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Should we even care? Here are 9 interesting facts that you can add to your kettle of Lenten knowledge.
Ash Wednesday, the portal to Lent, was first mentioned by a British monk named Aelfric around the year 1000 AD. Referring to the biblical practice of applying ashes and wearing sackcloth as signs of repentance (Job 42:6; Dan 9:3; Matt 11:21), he urged others to do so at the beginning of Lent. By the way, Ash Wednesday was originally known as dies cinerum, or “day of ashes.”
2. A Clean Sweep
In Eastern traditions, there is no Ash Wednesday. Rather, the Orthodox Church observes Clean Monday, a time to purify the soul of sinful, selfish attitudes. Indeed, the entire first week of Lent is often dubbed “Clean Week,” a time of confession, abstinence and spring cleaning.
3. Life Begins–and Lent Ends–at Forty
In the Western church, Lent technically lasts 46 days, but the six Sundays during this period have traditionally been exempted from fasting and other restrictions. However, in Eastern traditions, Sundays are included in Lent but, because the Orthodox calendar differs from the West, Lent still lasts 40 days. Biblically, the number 40 has powerful significance. Before he received the Ten Commandments, Moses camped out with God for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:28). The prophet Elijah tramped through the desert for 40 days and nights to hear the “small, still voice” on the mountain of the Lord (I Ki 19:8). And Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness before He launched His public ministry (Mt 4:2).
4. A Lent By Any Other Name
Lent comes from the Old English word, lencten, which means “springtime.” Lencten is also related to the German and Dutch words meaning “long,” referring to the lengthening days of sunlight as Easter approaches.
5. Lent–Not Just for Catholics, Anymore
Lots of people believe that only Roman Catholics observe Lent. For ages, that was true but not so anymore. According to a 2013 Washington Post article, over 200 Protestant denominations participate in “Ashes to Go,” an ecumenical network that ministers to the public on Ash Wednesday. While some people associate Lent with typical “high church” denominations such as Episcopalian, United Methodist and Presbyterian, this is beginning to change. For instance, Lyle Larson, a Southern Baptist pastor in Tennessee, has become more interested in practicing Lent. In a 2014 guest column for the Baptist Reflector, Larson wrote, “As I have undertaken observing Lent, I have found myself focusing on my inner life and what the Lord is calling me to do.”
6. There’s Something Fishy Going on Here
Ever wondered why Catholics eat fish on Fridays during Lent? Early records reveal that Christians have abstained on Friday to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died on “Good Friday.” Fish was substituted for the meat of warmblooded animals for several reasons: Jews customarily ate fish on Fridays because God created fish on the fifth day; the chief apostles of Christ were fishermen; the Resurrected Christ dined on fish (Lk 24:42; Jn 21:9-14) and fish reminded the early Christians of the waters of baptism and the water that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross.
By the way, did you know that the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich was inspired by Good Friday–and a little bit of economics? Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchise owner in a Catholic section of Cincinnati, noticed that his burger sales were dropping off on Fridays. His solution, in 1962, was to come up with the now-famous fish sandwich.
7. Born to the Purple
Purple is the liturgical color of Lent. It reminds Christians that a purple garment was placed on Jesus during His passion to mock Him (Mark 15:16-20). It is the color of penance, a stark reminder that human sin is a mockery of the perfect purity of God. Purple is also the color of royalty. When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus as a ruler, how little they realized that they were scorning the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
8. Time Out
Ash Wednesday is a public holiday in the Cayman Islands, French Guiana and Jamaica. In other places, such as Panama and the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, it is a day off for bank and government workers.
9. Waxing Poetic
After his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, T.S. Eliot penned a poem with the simple title, Ash Wednesday. It is a symbolic, six-part work that begins with despair and cynicism, finally ending on a note of hope infused with the vision of a Mary figure–“blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden.” The poem ends with an appeal from the Psalmist: “And let my cry come unto thee” (Ps 102:1). The Scottish Isles writer, Edwin Muir, called Ash Wednesday “one of the most moving poems (Eliot) has written, and perhaps the most perfect.”