Q. Is Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation?
A. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. The days of obligation all celebrate an event in the life of Jesus or Mary or a person (or persons as in the case of All Saints Day). Ash Wednesday does not, but it marks the beginning of a season. The day is chosen based on the fact that it's 40 days before Good Friday.
Q. Why do we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?
A. The prayer that is said as ashes are given explains it very well. The words are a reminder of our origins, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes and the whole season of Lent are a time to refocus on our relationship with God and that relationship starts with a dependence on God for our very existence. To recall that only with the breath of God can we have life is motivation to reorder whatever part of life needs it. As God breathed life into the dust at the beginning he can breathe new life into those who have fallen into sin. The ashes are a sign of mortality and a sign of renewal in Christ.
Q. What are the rules about fasting and abstinence?
A. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence. The law of fasting allows one full meal and two smaller ones. The law of abstinence prohibits the eating of meat. Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence in the United States. The obligation of abstinence begins at age 14. The law of fasting obliges all between the ages of 18-59. Pastors and parents are to see to it that minors, though not bound by the law of fast and abstinence, are educated in the authentic sense of penance and encouraged to do acts of penance suitable to their age. All members of the Christian faithful are encouraged to do acts of penance and charity beyond what is prescribed by the law.
Q. Why should we perform acts of penance?
A. The primary reason is that we take Christ as our model and he himself undertook acts of penance in preparation for his ministry and before his passion. Acts of penance are theological in following the example of the Master. They are also practical in helping to accomplish goals of certain days and seasons. In particular Lent is a season to reorder priorities and penance helps to be sure that created things are subordinate to divine realities in our lives. As it says in the Church's documents "Penance is a religious, personal act which has as its aim love and surrender to God." ("Paenitemini," chapter 1) Of course Scripture is clear as well that the rending of our hearts is the sacrifice the Lord desires. The various acts of penance put into physical reality what should be happening in our hearts.
Q. Why can't we eat meat on Fridays?
A. This practice is one of the disciplines of Lent that has the goal of love and surrender to God. It requires a break in the normal routine of our day and serves as a reminder that the basic needs of life should point us to the goodness of God. Scripture has a long record of abstaining from certain foods as part of religious practice. In our day that practice continues, not because eating meat is bad, but as a discipline to turn the mind to God.
Q. Are Sundays part of Lent?
A. Sundays most definitely are a part of Lent as they are listed the first through fifth Sundays of Lent, and not of something else. The Sundays do, however, take on a different character than other days because Sunday is always a celebration of the resurrection. There is no rule on whether Lenten practices continue on Sundays since such practices are voluntary anyway. Without a doubt we should maintain our preparation for the Triduum on Sundays, whether or not that includes acts of penance.
Q. Why can't we say "alleluia" at Mass during Lent?
A. The point of the season is a kind of exile. While the event of the resurrection has occurred in history, the days of Lent serve as a reminder that we do not yet experience the kingdom in its fullness. We live in the hope of the resurrection, but the weakness of human existence is all too evident in this life. The omission of the alleluia is one symbolic way to enter into the spirit of the season of Lent. The days of Lent are days of penance and recollection of human weakness but also days of anticipation and so we long for the day when the kingdom is fully realized. To be deprived of certain things during the days of Lent is designed to create a longing for the realization of all that the life of Jesus promises.
Q. What determines the date of Easter or when Lent begins?
A. The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) set the date of Easter as the Sunday following the 14th day of the paschal full moon, which is the full moon whose 14th day falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. The reason was because that was the date of Passover in the Jewish calendar, and the Last Supper (Holy Thursday) occurred on the Passover. Therefore, Easter was the Sunday after Passover.
Father Erik Pohlmeier is the theological consultant for Arkansas Catholic and pastor at St. John and St. Mary churches in Hot Springs.
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