Column: Understanding the meaning behind Lent

We are coming up to Ash Wednesday. It is not as well-known as the few days leading up to it, called Mardi Gras; in French, this means Fat Tuesday. The celebration may also be called Shrove Tuesday in some cultures. Both are celebrated before Ash Wednesday, which is the solemn beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is to contact us to reflect on our mortality. It is a time to pray, do penance, fast, reflect on our lives, and access how we grow in the God who loves us. At the end of these 40 days is Easter Sunday for Christians.

Christians are not the only religious group that sets aside special days or months to reflect on their behavior and human progress. In the Jewish tradition, there are called High Holy Days; these encompass Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Ten days after the holy day, Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is concluded. This time can be spent in forgiveness, repentance and getting close to God.

The Muslims set an entire month for spiritual discipline. For the 30 days of Ramadan, all people over 18 are called to fast from sunup to sundown. They may not eat or drink until the fast is broken at sundown. This is to deepen their relationship with God. The time can be spent studying the Quran, prayer, practicing generosity, and forgiveness of others are the aims of this spiritual exercise.

Reflection and penance are the aims of Lent, which is 40 days before Easter. For the Christian, Easter is the great celebration of the sacrifice of the cross and the triumph of the Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the day after Mardi Gras. Both take place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras was a day of indulgence. In France, it was a day you ate rich food and enjoyed yourself, for the next day was about fasting and penance and prayer. The next forty days were to prepare the soul for Easter. It was forty days long to commemorate the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying.

Interestingly, many different cultures and religions have a period of fasting and seeking forgiveness or reflecting on where their life is going. To stop and look, checking the direction of our moral compass. For Catholics and several other Christian churches, members go to Church on Ash Wednesday for a Mass or service and to receive ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead. This symbolic sign warns the pilgrim of their temporary existence on earth. In past times, people kept a skull in their rooms to remind them of their limited time on Earth.

Our current society has little space or tolerance for taking time to check our moral road. There is little room for prayer, let alone reflection. The current culture deals with immediacy and the “now.” There is much to learn about ourselves, our peace of mind, and our emotional lives. Lent is a time set aside for spiritual growth and bringing God closer to our lives. To withdraw from past selfishness and to see directly without the blindness of desire. To trust a God who loves us and ask for forgiveness and guidance in our lives. This is what Lent, the forty days, is about. We take the time to look at who we are and see where we are going. Christianity offers Ash Wednesday to its members.

We are mortal beings. We will all die someday; Lent is a time to ponder not only our finite lives but also to ponder and see the concepts of forgiveness, humility, and compassion that we can use to grow in grace and peace. We are allowed to bare our souls to prepare us to celebrate the deep meaning of the eternal: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as gateways to everlasting life.

As one receives the ashes on Wednesday, the prayer speaks clearly about what Lent is about. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall return.”


Kathleen Carlton Johnson, Ph.D., is a hospice chaplain.


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