St. Athanasius wrote of Lent in the fourth century as if it was already an ancient tradition. The patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, described “the whole world” engaged in a 40-day Lenten fast in preparation for Easter.
That was only about 60 years after the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) was held in the aftermath of the Age of Martyrs. The Council fathers agreed to the tradition that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after March 21. As it has ever after. And Ash Wednesday is always 46 days prior to Easter — 40 days of the traditional penitential period, plus six nonpenitential Sundays.
We knelt in the evening 1,692 years after Nicea. The Hoosier church was crowded for Mass and the distribution of ashes. Ash Wednesday came late this year. Workers struggling in after a long day. Young fathers and mothers with the little guys. Even some of the oldsters — like me — who didn’t get up in the early morning.
We’re all there after a day of fast and abstinence. As we will conclude in keeping Good Friday. The season has begun.
Ash Wednesday was something to experience in downtown Pittsburgh when I lived there a few years back. A small congregation on the weekends, the downtown Catholic church — St. Mary of Mercy — had the whole working city for a parish that day. Ashes were distributed at the noon Mass and the diocesan pastoral center next door. Lines poured in and out of both.
Pittsburgh is a Catholic town, and looking around on Ash Wednesday, ashes seemed to be on every forehead.
We saw ashes outside of church this year, but in Indiana the weather seems to establish the mood of the Lenten season that will follow. The world looks penitential. Indiana is generally dark and overcast in the weeks before — and just after — the spring equinox. It might snow — a wet, messy slop that usually greets St. Patty’s Day — but it looks more gray than white. Everything novel about winter disappeared long ago, and there is rarely a hint in the landscape that greenery will ever come.
We’ve been abstaining on Fridays, and just about everyone still has their own “give-ups” for the season. I’m reminded of the Lenten discipline that Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) presented to Augustine of Canterbury for his consideration: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs and butter.” Today, it’s more likely beer and chocolate.
Fasting. Abstinence. Almsgiving. They are the triumvirate of the Lenten season and have been so since Gregory the Great. The monks would keep that strict fast and abstinence. Fish was often subject to it, as in many places it was considered “flesh meat.”
In his classic “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” (1952, with a 1958 imprimatur from Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston), Father Francis X. Weiser explains how people would donate what little they saved from the Lenten abstinence to “the building of churches and other pious endeavors. One of the steeples of the Cathedral of Rouen in France is still known for this reason as the ‘butter tower.’”
Father Weiser’s book is long out of print. I’ve cribbed much of this from my battered copy, old when I was young. You can get a used edition on Amazon, but it costs a king’s ransom. I don’t know if the good souls of Rouen still call it the “butter tower.” Breaks my heart when the old knowledge slips away.
Lent holds us. Beginning with a reminder of our own mortality, it’s a pilgrimage every year from “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” to the promise of the Resurrection. Lent heals the soul. In Pittsburgh. In Indiana. The whole world.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @BobPLockwood.