When the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister makes the sign of the cross with the ashes on our foreheads and utters the words, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return" it is a reminder for us of where we came from and where we're heading; no - not a ball of lint inside a vacuum cleaner where so much dust is gathered - nor on the end of a dustmop, but rather toward Heavenly bliss where our soul will live forever…if we but heed God's Will by following His directives through Sacred Scripture and His Holy Church. It's that simple! But we've gotta want it and we've gotta work for it. There is no such thing as a free lunch and Lent brings this point home, though if one is truly observing the practice of penance, sacrifice and fasting, lunch isn't important. The state of our soul is - as well as the condition of countless other souls who we offer in reparation through our expiation. That is what Lent has always been about. The term Ash Wednday whose etimology is derived from the day of ashes - dies cinerum in Latin - was first found in the Roman Missal around the eighth century. The ashes then as now come from the burnt cinders of blessed palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday. It was a continuation of the ritual practiced in the Old Covenant when repenting sinners covered themselves with ashes and garbed themselves in prickly sackcloth. While few wear sackcloth today except the most avant garde fashion models going to extreme in style, we do retain the ashes ceremony, simplifying it to only the foreheads. Can you imagine the messy carpets and floors of the churches, not to mention dry-cleaning bills, if we still strewn ashes all over our bodies? So the Church, in her wisdom, simplified it. It marks the beginning of Lent which derives its name from the Greek word tessarakoste meaning "fortieth." How do we get four letter word out of that mouthful? Well it's kind of a hybrid mutation from numerous dialects throughout Europe in earlier times. Some claim Lent is the Teutonic word for "springtime" and it was the easiest to pronounce. Well, that's true and besides - saying the Latin quadragesima (Latin for "fortieth") can be tongue-twisting. So we're stuck with the word "Lent."
But we're not stuck in Lent. Oh, we are if we're not willing to focus the next forty six days on bettering ourselves spiritually and morally. Wait a second, did we say forty six? Isn't that supposed to be forty? Yes and no! There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, however the Sundays are not included for those are not days of fasting. Therefore take away the six Sundays and - voila - we have forty days. These forty days are supposed to be days of fast and abstinence. However, the Church has relaxed the rules over the years, especially in the Western Church - specifically the United States. The question always comes up: "what's the difference between fasting and abstinence?" Fasting is required for all those over 21 years of age in which no two meals will equal the third. The best way to observe this is to eat very little in the morning and afternoon and have a regular meal in the evenings which cannot surpass the total amount of food consumed at the previous two meals that day. Sounds somewhat confusing but that is the fast the Church in the United States mandates. Our Lady, however, has imparted other ways of fasting to her visionaries and asked that this method be passed on to all her children - that is fasting on bread and water only. In the Medjugorje apparitions, she asks these fasts be observed Wednesdays and Fridays. The latter is true fasting for we are giving up the meats, sweets and delicious foods and drinks we have been used to on special days for the specific purpose of calling to mind our dedication to live God's Will and sacrifice our physical pleasures in favor of spiritual favors. Again, that dividend thing! Abstinence, on the other hand has nothing to do with fasting except to stay clear of meat on these days. Ash Wednesday and each Friday in Lent are days of abstinence. Again, this may not be such a sacrifice to many if they are vegetarians or trying to lose weight. But it is something the bishops of the United States are considering resurrecting - meatless Fridays again in order to emphasize the importance of sacrifice and in reparation for the sins of abortion and other atrocities that contribute to the culture of death. The required age for abstinence is 14 years of age. So during Lent, all teens and their parents should pass on the Big Macs on Fridays in favor of the Fish Sandwich or…following the Blessed Mother's counsel - try bread and water. It's a great purifier physically and spiritually!
There are many who, for health and physical reasons, cannot always fast. The Church is lenient on this and encourages one to give up something such as television, sweets, a pleasure that one would miss and when one misses it will call to mind the purpose of why one is giving it up. It's called Lent and it's an annual affair which requires common sense for the body and the soul. God is lenient as to intent and practice. He knows it's not easy. After all He's not asking us to do something He didn't do. Remember Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert ALONE with very little to eat and drink and was tempted greatly. So when temptation comes, remember He's with you and it'll be easier to fend off satan's wiles. And if you falter in fasting, relax and try again. But don't relax too much, after all it's Lent! And when you leave the Church today, don't be afraid to wear those ashes proudly! It's the fasting fashion!