Blessed Ash Wednesday

While I don’t commemorate Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches have Forgiveness Sunday instead, to kick off Great Lent), I consider it a beautiful and moving tradition, reminding us that “from dust we came, and to dust we shall return,” and to mourn our sins as in “sackcloth and ashes.” At least inwardly.

I find it interesting, all the different ways people prepare for Easter. Catholics have gone from a complete vegan fast several hundred years ago, to not eating meat on Fridays, to a discipline of their choice and not eating meat on Good Friday. I liked the short article Just Give it up for a modern Catholic perspective on the Great Fast.

I gave up coffee one Lent. I thought I could handle it. I wanted to feel the pinch, but I didn’t expect (or want) to feel walloped with a bat instead. I gave it up, and I found that I really missed it.

For one thing, I soon realized that I didn’t like coffee only for the taste, or for the caffeine, but for the rituals, of getting up from my desk and wandering to the faculty lounge to get another cup, of chatting with the colleagues on the way, of wandering back to my office to settle in again after a pleasant break. It just didn’t feel right, not getting up for coffee.

And there was the caffeine, or the sudden lack of it. For maybe three weeks I found myself with a sudden craving for Classic Coke, something I rarely drink, and getting up from my desk to walk across the seminary quad to the soda machine in another building, even when it was pouring rain, and I did so without the slightest idea why. Then I realized I’d only found, through some subconscious sense, a substitute source of an addictive drug and was happy to risk illness to get it.

Then there’s the Evangelical observance. That’s a tricky one: it’s all about the individual conscience, and must not look anything like obedience to the disciplines of the Church. People should, perhaps, fast – but only as they are being led individually by God to do so. At least such was the message of the church I grew up in. Urbana, the Intervarsity missions organization, suggests keeping Lent by imitating the food available to the poor throughout the world. This is a distinct improvement from the “any fast you undertake must be entirely your own idea” sentiments that seem to have been going around lately. Of course, I most love my own church’s traditions, partly because they’re Orthodox and I love anything Orthodox, and partly because Lent really feels like a different season – not winter, not spring – just Lent; and it has a magnificent way of bringing a church together. More on them Sunday.


6 thoughts on “Blessed Ash Wednesday

  1. As a practicing Catholic, I’ve come to a different perspective on fasting and penance this year. In the past I’ve “given up” something (usually a food or drink)until Easter Sunday and sometimes beyond. This year I decided I needed to really give up something that I struggle with every week. A character flaw or a behavior that is not very Christian like and not becoming to anyone that does it. I have been marginally successful this week, but am certainly more aware of my behavior and pray that the work I am doing during these 40 days will be the jump start I need to change the behavior for the rest of my life. Isn’t that what we should be doing during Lent? So my fasting isn’t in the traditional sense, but hopefully will take me to a different level. And I agree with you—this is my absolute favorite time of the year because no other time of year brings with it such promise to those who believe.
    Do you do Stations of the Cross? I try to go most Fridays during Lent and walking them is such a powerful reminder of the tremendous gift Jesus gave us and helps me make the connection to my daily life.
    PS I love my beaded bookmark!

    • Thank you so much for responding 🙂 That’s an interesting perspective. I had heard before that some catholics choose to give up some non food related habit, rather than a food for Lent. How is that working for you?

      It always made me wonder: why not give up a food and a non-food? Or do I just have an unusually large number of bad habits?

      No, Orthodox do not have Stations of the Cross. We do have prostrations. Lots of them. But that’s not anything like the same thing. What do you do for the Stations? Is it somethign where people go around and contemplate each point?


      • Hi Molly,

        I’m challenged every day by my fasting and penance. I guess that’s the point. I’m not sure its getting any easier as the days go by. I think I need to pray more and try harder. The human mind is challenging and my bad habits has become such a part of my life sometimes its hard to recognize what I’m trying to change! It is easy to say I’m going to give up food and non-food and the food items are always pretty easy for me, so I thought I’d forgo that this year, but I guess I could have cut out snacking between meals. HHMM I’ll start that tomorrow!

        The stations of the cross are little statues or sculptures that represent Jesus’ steps to His crucifixion. At each station an explanation takes place, prayers are said, and parallels to our lives are made. In my church, the priest uses materials that help us reflect on what we can do in our lives to honor Jesus each step of the way. It helps me focus on what I should be doing.


        • Forgive me if I sounded like I was putting down what you choose to do or not do. That wasn’t my intention at all. I had wondered before about how Catholics keep lent – not the *what* so much as the *why* of certain things. In Orthodoxy, in general, the rule is as much about obedience as it is about difficulty. So if someone says “it’s harder for me to give up candy than meat,” they will most likely be met with “ok, give up candy *and* meat.” If, for instance, I were to mention to my spiritual father that computers are more distracting to me than food (assuming being on a computer wasn’t part of my job), that would most certainly not lead to him saying that I didn’t have to refrain from certain foods. He might, however, say that I ought to give up computers and certain foods.

          I think his reasoning (and that of others that I’ve heard) is that the general observance is a matter of obedience, and special observances that I mould choose for myself are a matter of my own will, however disciplined or well intentioned it may be. One of the reasons for the fast is to deny our own wills in submission to God and His Church. As such could only be additional and not a substitute. It’s different, though, when people can’t keep the normal rules on account of medical or situational reasons.

          At least that’s how I understood it.

          Does that make any sense?

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