On Ash Wednesday and Lent

mardi gras

Could these upraised arms have a double meaning, including one not so “indelicate?”



Tuesday, February 17, 2015 –  Even as we speak … I am doing advance penance for the upcoming season of penance.  I am folding what seems to be an endless stream of church bulletins, one set for the noon service tomorrow and one set for the service at 6:00 p.m.

Which brings up the whole topic of Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent:

According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan.  Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter.

See Wikipedia.  See also Lent 101 – The Upper Room.  So the “40 days of Lent” are supposed to commemorate the 40 days that Jesus spent “wandering in the wilderness.”  That act by Jesus mirrored the 40 years that the Hebrews – led by Moses – spent also “wandering around.”

In turn, Lent – a season devoted to “prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial  – is preceded by “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday.  This year Ash Wednesday is February 18.  That’s preceded by Fat Tuesday, February 17 this year.

The French term for Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras, now a generic term for “Let’s Party!!”  As Wikipedia put it, “Popular practices on Mardi Gras include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, debauchery, etc.”

See also A Brief History of Mardi Gras – Photo Essays – TIME, which noted, “Mardi Gras isn’t all nudity and drunken debauchery (though, yes, there is definitely nudity and drunken debauchery).”  (Emphasis in original.)   But the origin of Fat Tuesday was more spiritual:

In earlier times, people used Lent as a time of fasting and repentance.  Since they didn’t want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house, they cleaned out their cabinets.  They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet breads before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available.  It was a great feast!  Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved (in some places) into a pretty wild party with little to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity.

Lent 101, emphasis added.  Incidentally, there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.  That’s because Sundays don’t count in the calculation.  Sundays in Lent are essentially “days off,” when you can still enjoy whatever it is that you’ve given up for Lent.  (A fact overlooked by the writer/producers of 40 Days and 40 Nights, a “2002 romantic comedy film” which showed the main character “during a period of abstinence from any sexual contact for the duration of Lent.”  As noted, the main character could have “taken Sundays off.”)

Getting back to the subject at hand…   You can see the full set of Bible readings for tomorrow at Ash Wednesday.  The highlight is the Gospel, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, where Jesus warned of “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

On the subject of fasting (and abstinence) –  primary components of the Lenten discipline – Jesus said, “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”  Instead (basically) put on a happy face, “so that your fasting may be seen not by others, but by your Father who is in secret.” (Emphasis added.)

As for almsgiving, Jesus said, “Do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … so that they may be praised by others.”  Instead, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.”  (Which is where the expression the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing comes from…)

And finally Jesus said this about praying in public (and by extension, school prayer):

Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret;  and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Are we getting the picture here?  The one thing Jesus kept mentioning over and over was hypocrisy, which includes “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.”

I wrote about this whole controversy in On praying in public.  I concluded with a variation of the classic Henny Youngman one-liner,  “Take school prayer…  Please!

 But we digress…

If you’re interested in more history on Ash Wednesday see The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday.  That site noted the “pouring of ashes on one’s body” as an “outer manifestation of inner repentance” is an ancient practice.  The earliest mention seems to have come at the end of the Book of Job, “older than any other book of the Bible.”  In Job 42:6, after he is rebuked by God, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Not to mention “dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material.”  See also On Job, the not-so-patient.)

And finally see The ‘Splainer: Ash Wednesday and dirty Christian foreheads, about “washing:”

No one is required to keep the ashes on his or her face after the ritual.  But some Christians choose to, perhaps as a reminder to themselves that they are mortal and fallible, while others may choose to leave them on as a witness to their faith in the hope others will ask about them and open a door to sharing their faith.

Here’s wishing you a happy and spiritually-fulfilling Lent!



Jesus, tempted in the wilderness during His own “40 days…”


The upper image is courtesy of A Brief History of Mardi Gras … TIME, with the caption:

OK, Mardi Gras’ reputation as an alcohol-fueled, nudity-filled bacchanal is not completely unearned.  In 1973, a ban was established on Krewe parades in the increasingly rowdy and narrow streets of the French Quarter.  In subsequent years, tourists and other drunken fools descended on the Quarter (especially the particularly saucy Bourbon Street) en masse, and the tradition of showing skin for beads began.  Native New Orleanians despise the reputation, and rarely venture into the Quarter during Carnival season.

Emphasis added, which means “there’s probably some kind of object lesson there…”

The lower image is courtesy of Temptation of Christ – Wikipedia, with the caption, “James TissotJesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) – Brooklyn Museum.”

As to Job being older than any other book in the Bible, see Dating the Book of Job (PDF), which concluded that the book chronicled “events that took place between 1280 and 1270 BC – about 100 years before the Exodus.  As explained in the below excerpt, it is also evident from the text of the book of Job itself that it is older than any other book of the Bible.”



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