Dear Fellow Parishioners,
What is the attraction of Ash Wednesday for so many, even those who attend church only a few times a year? Part of the appeal is its universality, as any living person from the Pope on down can receive ashes. I’m almost certain that our attendance at SV was noticeably larger this year than it has been in recent years.
Unlike Confession, which requires an Act of Contrition, penitence on Ash Wednesday is presumed in the very act of receiving the public sign of ashes. It is the one time in which all people stand simultaneously as equals before God on this earth. Part of the appeal is also deeply personal. Except in rare cases, everyone has a deep but diffuse intuition regarding the spiritual and moral character of their own lives. It’s diffuse, and the distractions of this world do everything possible to silence it, but it’s clear to those who take the time, effort, and prayer to discover and understand it. That is one of the main purposes of Ash Wednesday and Lenten observance.
The 40 days of Lent mirror the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert tempted by the Evil One. The desert, far from being empty, is full of stars and shadows that come to life. Jesus, the Son of God, returns to the desert where monotheism was revealed.
The forms of private penance prescribed by Jesus in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday – almsgiving, prayer and fasting – are a specific spiritual remedy, targeting the nexus of body, mind and spirit which to this day no one fully understands. But Jesus is not asking our understanding of penance, only our obedience, evidenced by the repetitive use of “when,” rather than “if,” e.g., “When you pray…” and not “If you pray…” We may not know how it works, just that it works.
Lenten fasting and abstinence, historically, were undertaken in much harsher circumstances. In agricultural socie- ties, and before refrigeration, Lent coincided with the “hungry gap,” the time in spring when little to no fresh produce was available. This was especially the case for those who lived in colder climates. People had to rely on dwindling and aging stocks of stored food, beans and wheat. Salted meat was either used up or gone rancid. Salted fish was available for some, but was more difficult to find away from the ocean. For many, Lent meant truly subsistence living.
On a much lighter note, Catholic abstinence from meat on Fridays was partly responsible for one of the most popular fast-food items ever. In 1962, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchise owner in a heavily Catholic area of Cincinnati, noticed that burger sales were always way down on Fridays. So he invented the Filet-O-Fish sandwich for 25 cents. Now, 60 years later, 200 million are sold annually, and 25% of those are sold during Lent.
Fr. Bill Donahue