In the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent during which the faithful help the poor, pray fervently and fast without making a show of it.
On this day, the priest smears ash on the forehead of believers uttering the formula: “Remember from dust you came and to dust will you return.
An alternative version states: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Ash Wednesday is one of the pivotal days in the religious calendar of the Catholic Church.
This year, the beginning of Lent coincides with Valentine’s Day which popular culture dedicates to matters of the heart.
While some will be donning red for romance, others will be marked with ashes on their foreheads.
FAST OR PARTY?
Many young people I work with in JKUAT have been heard asking: “Will we fast or go partying?” It is a real dilemma.
The discipline of fasting is common to several religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism as a quest for greater union with the divine and as a sign of readiness to serve beyond self.
Hebrew kings, priests, prophets and people of God are reported to have abstained from food, drink and pleasure for certain periods, usually for 40 days.
Classical examples include Elijah and Jonah. The latter preached to the people of Nineveh who repented, covering themselves with sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:6-10).
Ashes, being the remnant of burnt material, symbolise the need for transformation in life.
In the New Testament, the disciples of John the Baptist were wont to fast, but those of Jesus were initially reluctant to do so (Mt. 9:14). But Jesus himself began his public work after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights (Mt. 4:1-2).
The Christian Church borrowed the custom of sprinkling with ashes from Judaism. In the first four centuries, repentant sinners dressed in sackcloth and would be sprinkled with ashes.
Later, the Church dispensed with the sackcloth and retained the marking with ashes at the beginning of Lent.
The word Lent, from Middle English Lenten, means springtime. Originally, fasting during Lent required abstinence from meats on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of the season.
Curiously, fish was allowed, even expensive varieties!
Presently, rules have been relaxed for Catholics with abstinence from meats demanded only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The rationale of Lent is that the human person has a calling beyond the material.
Lent signifies spiritual discipline and the need for proper orientation and organisation in human life.
It is remarkable that the idea of disciplined organisation has been borrowed from religion by corporations in the form of retreats so as to enhance productivity in business and trade.
Like love, the beginnings of Valentine’s Day are largely shrouded in mystery.
The Harper Collins Encyclopaedia of Catholicism has two saints called Valentine whose feast was celebrated on February 14.
One of them served as bishop of Terni outside Rome in the 3rd century and died as a martyr.
The other was a popular priest of the diocese of Rome who had the gift of wise counsel. One legend has it that he was so successful in helping lovers enter and settle in stable marriages that Emperor Claudius II (died AD 270) was offended.
As a rule, married men were not sent on military excursions and, consequently, it became difficult to recruit for the defence forces. An irate emperor ordered Valentine beheaded in AD 269. It is this Valentine whose name has become synonymous with happy romantic relationships and stable marriages.
Another version states that Valentine’s Day began during the Middle Ages in Europe where some species of birds start pairing up in mid-February.
This hypothesis proceeds to argue that patterns of human behaviour are largely in response to the natural cycle of seasons.
Proponents of this theory conclude that the sprouting into life of flora and fauna, and especially birds during the spring, inspires humans to search for partners in order to attain individual fulfilment and also to ensure survival of their species.
Valentine’s Day received a major boost with the advent of greeting cards specifically the hallmark variety a century ago.
Persons in romantic relationships took to exchanging greeting cards and gifts, introducing a commercial dimension to the phenomenon of Valentine’s Day.
Interestingly, Churches are attempting to re-claim the original objective of this day in accordance with Father Valentine’s vision by gathering Christian couples and counselling them along the path of fidelity and sacrifice even as they enjoy romantic love.
As the beginning of Lent clashes with the romance of Valentine’s Day this year, let us also be prepared for a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday which, by another fortuitous coincidence in 2018, will fall on April Fool’s Day.
Happy Valentine’s Day
A Fruitful Lent