Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin Lent

Priest in purple vestments with one hand raised to forehead of woman, other in line behind her

Marking the foreheads of the faithful with ashes at Southwark Cathedral, in England. Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18: Lent commences today for more than a billion Western Christians. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, due to variances in church calendars, will start Lent about a week later following Cheesefare Sunday on February 22 (when Orthodox Christians who plan to observe the fast of Great Lent will have their last taste of cheese until Easter). February 23 is called Clean Monday, the start of that challenging fasting period for Eastern Christians.

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although most churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections. (Learn more from Wikipedia and Catholic.org.)

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan. Lent similar marks 40 days, not counting Sundays.

‘ASHES TO GO’
& CHINESE NEW YEAR EXEMPTIONS

In a nationwide effort to bring ashes to those too busy to attend church services, pastors and laypersons are visiting train stations, malls, public parks, coffee shops and college campuses to mark the foreheads of the faithful. From California to Minneapolis, congregations are reporting excitement for this new approach to an old ritual. Leaders report that “Ashes to Go” allows faith traditions to be carried outside the walls of the church to the places where people are on an average day. (Check out stories from ABC News and the Ashbury Park Press.)

In Manila, the Archdiocese has granted a 2015 episcopal jurisdiction exemption or dispensation from the obligation of fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday to Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics, in regard for the coinciding of Ash Wednesday with the eve of the Chinese New Year. It has been emphasized, however, that those who choose to accept the dispensation are required to engage in other forms of penance and charity.

ACTIVITIES & MORE

Families interested in counting the days of Lent can try a “Lent calendar,” similar to an Advent calendar, in which children can place a sticker on each day as it ends (a calendar can be downloaded here). Alternatively, FishEaters suggests a “Lent chain,” for which children create 40 pieces of paper inscribed with kind acts and prayers. Each day of Lent, the children cut a link and perform the day’s act or prayer.

Shrove Tuesday: It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival and Pancake Day

Figure in elaborate costume of white and gold with gold mask

In Venice, Carnevale means elaborate masks and layered costumes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Pancake Day—all describe the massive celebration that takes place one day before the start of the Christian season of reflection and penitence known as Lent.

Make no mistake—in some countries, this colossal party is the biggest bash of the year. Roots of this festival can be traced to the pagan era, but Christians have been using the day for shriving—confessing—and cleaning out their cupboards of sugar and lard for centuries. In parts of England, traditional pancake races still take place on Shrove Tuesday, and pancakes of all flavors are served across the UK. In Rio de Janiero, Brazil—home of the world’s largest Carnival eventfestivities last for days and boast exquisite costumes, elaborate samba dances, tantalizing foods and seemingly endless parades.

Did you know? Carnival derives from the term carne levare, “to take away meat.” The term is still used in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries to refer to the approaching abstinence of Lent.

SHROVE TUESDAY IN THE CHURCH

Some Christian denominations mark Shrove Tuesday on their calendars, including Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In preparation for the start of Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray to God for assistance during the 40-day period of fasting and repentance. Some churches with daily liturgies include special Shrove Tuesday prayers.

Much of the action on this holiday unfolds at home. Hundreds of years ago, as housewives cleared their cupboards of “indulgent” foods like sugar, lard and butter before Lent, they baked treats with the rich ingredients. Before the fasting of the Lenten season, housewives prepared the pancakes and other foods that are still consumed on Shrove Tuesday. In Sweden, the semla pastry is prepared; in Lithuania, spurgo doughnuts are consumed; in Estonia, vastlakukkel sweet buns are filled with jam and eaten with whipped cream; in Poland and in Polish communities in the U.S., the paczki is a favorite treat. (Wikipedia has details.)

FAT TUESDAY, CARNIVAL, MARDI GRAS

Literally “fat Tuesday,” or “grease Tuesday,” from the French Mardi Gras, the day preceding Ash Wednesday is the stuff of legends. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday activities date to the 12th Century. One traditional story says that the 11 a.m. ringing of the church bell caught a housewife was in the midst of cooking pancakes. As a result, this woman brought her frying pan—with a pancake still inside—to church. Races that require participants to toss pancakes into the air while running have been popular across the UK ever since. In London, the Rehab Parliamentary Pancake Race gathers teams from the British Houses to raise awareness for health and social care for the disabled and marginalized.

Stack of pancakes from top with two slices of banana

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Australians love pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, as well, with many pancake fundraisers benefiting churches and charities. In Brazil and Italy, the festivities of Carnival(e) draw millions of tourists. (The International Business Times reported, with photos from Brazil. Alternatively, the Guardian captured 2015 media from Venice.) In New Orleans, Louisina, crowds flock to the French Quarter for a boisterous version of Mardi Gras.

PANCAKE RECIPES & MORE

Interested in livening up your go-to version of the pancake?

The Guardian rounded up reader recipes, with these tasty results.

English Chef Thomasina Miers suggests homemade Nutella, with more recipes here.

The Huffington Post serves up 16 pancake recipe ideas.

LIVE FROM BRAZIL …

YouTube launched a channel dedicated to the Carnaval de Salvador, the second-largest Carnival celebration in Brazil. Musical performances, Brazilian dancing and more can be viewed here.

Western Christians transition into Lent: Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday

Closeup of stack of pancakes

Pancakes have been a Shrove Tuesday tradition for centuries. Photo by Paul Goyette, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 4 and WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5: With Easter on the horizon and Lent quickly approaching, Western Christians enter the season of repentance on Ash Wednesday—after, of course, making any last indulgences the day before, on Fat Tuesday.

Traditionally an opportunity for Christian households to cleanse their cupboards of butter and eggs in preparation for Lent, Mardi Gras (literally, “Fat Tuesday) has evolved far beyond its simple, pancakes-and-paczkis roots. The food-laden traditions of Shrove Tuesday do still exist—in England, pancake races have been held continuously since the 15th century, and doughnut shops worldwide continue to bake millions of paczkis—but the elaborate festivities have morphed into mega-festivals across the globe. (Wikipedia has details.) Whether it’s Carnival in Brazil, Carnevale in Italy or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, days-long events finally come to a close on Ash Wednesday, as Christians begin the 40 days of Lent.

Free pancakes! This March 4, head over to the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) for a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes. In lieu of paying for pancakes, IHOP asks its customers to donate to one of three designated charities.

Recipes: Shrimp gumbo, jambalaya and King Cake can be on your menu, with help from Food Network and Taste of Home.

FAT TUESDAY:
INDULGE IN PACZKIS AND
PARTY LIKE IT’S MARDI GRAS

Gold full face mask with pale green and purple paint

Photo by Erika, courtesy of Flickr

Epiphany—or King’s Day, on January 6— signals the official start of Carnival season. Montevideo, Uruguay, is the first city to kick off festivities for Carnival (on January 20), in a celebration that lasts 40 days. In most cities, events begin one or two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday, with colorful parades, masquerade dress, festive music and, of course, plenty of sweet and fried breads. Whether it’s the Polish paczki, the English pancake or the Swedish semla, the tradition of using sugar, lard, butter and eggs on Fat Tuesday has as many cultural variations as nations that celebrate.

In the UK and Ireland, the week prior to Ash Wednesday is known as “Shrovetide,” ending on Shrove Tuesday and always involving pancakes. Shrove Tuesday is derived from the word shrive, which means, “to confess.”

Did you know? In the Belgian city of Binche, the Mardi Gras festival is known as the Carnival of Binche. It was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, in 2003.

History attributes the most basic traditions of Carnival to pre-Christian tradition, most likely in relation with the seasons. By the 2nd Century CE, Romans were observing a Fast of 40 Days, which was often preceded by a season of feasting and costuming. The Christian Mardi Gras began in Medieval Europe, although Venice remains one of the most sought-after destinations for the holiday. (CNN has a slideshow of the world’s most dazzling Mardi Gras celebrations.)

Did you know? “Carnival” derives from the Latin carne levare, which means, “to take away meat.”

Across the world, in Rio de Janeiro, Carnival has become such a massive event—so much so, in fact, that the country attracts 70 percent of its tourists during this time! Mardi Gras came to the United States in 1699, when French explorers Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne were sent to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane. Today, Mardi Gras reigns strong in New Orleans. The season in New Orleans began several weeks ago.

REPENT AND BEGIN LENT
ON ASH WEDNESDAY

Priest places ashes on forehead of woman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Carnival season has ended and Lent begins on March 5, with Ash Wednesday.

In representation of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday, able adults fast, and all able Christians abstain from meat and practice repentance. Records indicate that from the earliest centuries, the days preceding Jesus Christ’s death were filled with a solemnity of fasting and penitence.

The custom of clergy placing ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful is rooted in the practice of doing so as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. On Ash Wednesday, Christians recall their mortality and express sorrow for sins. Traditionally, palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned into ashes for Ash Wednesday services, and the ashes are then blessed. (Catholic Culture has more.) The Catholic Church permits ashes on the forehead for anyone who wishes to receive them—not just baptized Catholics. Generally, the practice of ashes is kept by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans.

Got kids? Help children to better understand the purpose of Lent with Sacrifice Beans (learn a how-to here).