Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Why ‘Lent’ and ‘Ash’ Wednesday?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this:

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why ‘Lent’ and ‘Ash’ Wednesday?

‘Lent,’ which to Church people means forty days of fasting before the feast of Easter, once meant no more than ‘spring’. The old English word ‘Lencten’ probably came from the same old Teutonic root as did the word ‘long’, and meant simply ‘the lengthening days’.

It was not until the seventh century that the ‘lenten fast’ became fixed as a forty-day fast in the Western Church. Before that, custom had greatly varied. As late as the second century St. Irenaeus had written telling the Pope how: ‘some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days and others even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night for their fast’.

This variety of custom seems mainly to have been due to the fact that the special annual observance of Easter only came gradually. The early Church celebrated the Resurrection every Sunday, and kept a strict fast from Friday to Saturday night, ‘the days on which the bridegroom was taken away. But as Easter gradually also became the great annual feast, the fast before the chosen Sunday became formalized and prolonged.

It was a natural piety which finally ruled that this great fast should continue for forty days to commemorate the forty days of fasting which Jesus - and, before him, Moses and Elijah- spent in the wilderness.

Perhaps the number forty had besides a special flavour as being the number of hours which Jesus spent in the grave. Forty days, too, as an early commentator noted, also formed roughly a tenth of the year, and therefore could be seen as a Christian’s tithing of his time to God.

Since the seventh century, therefore, the Lenten fast has started on a Wednesday; Sundays were feast days, so to set a fast of forty days before Easter meant beginning the fast in the middle of the seventh week before Easter.

The marking of so solemn a day as that Wednesday became in time a generally recognized necessity. Because the Wednesday was thought of as a day of special penitence, old customs of public penance and mourning for sin were adapted to it - customs which went back through the New to the Old Testament.

Christians reminded themselves that they were as nought, and cried with Abraham, ‘I am but dust and ashes’. Like the penitent Jews, they sprinkled themselves with ashes, and by the eleventh century the Western Church had prescribed a service for the blessing of ashes and the marking with ash of priests and people.

This custom-—-the origin of the name ‘Ash’ Wednesday —not forbidden by the English Reformers, had fallen into disuse here by the seventeenth century, though it continued elsewhere, and was recently revived in some Anglican churches.

The ashes of branches blessed on the preceding Palm Sunday are blessed with four ancient prayers, then mingled with holy water and censed with incense. Priests and people are then marked with an ashen cross on their foreheads with the words, ‘Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return’.

The fast so begun was strictly kept in the early centuries. Pope Gregory the Great gave St. Augustine the ruling which became the common law of Church and State: in the one daily meal allowed during the fast, ‘we abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs’.

By a later concession, in Germany known as ‘butter briefe’, people could eat milk-products if, in return, they gave alms to some good work. These alms are said to have built or partly built many churches. They are said to have paid for the ornate south-west tower of Rouen Cathedral called the ‘Butter Tower’.

It was because abstinence from eggs generally continued, that the last day before Lent became marked, in England, by the orgy of egg-breaking involved in making good pancakes, and Easter Day became marked by the offering and blessing of a hoard of Easter eggs.

1 comment:

James said...

Perhaps the number forty had besides a special flavour

It's the generic Old Testament term for "a lot", in the same way (if you know your Watership Down) that rabbits count one, two, three, four, hrair.