Yesterday was Mardi Gras, today is Ash Wednesday. What is the deal? If you are among the perplexed or the godless, I have prepared an FAQ to help you understand why people have stuff on their faces today but don’t seem interested in daubing at it with a napkin.
Q: What’s the deal with Lent? Is it like a weird Catholic New Year’s, where you make well-meaning resolutions that no one ever keeps?
A: Pretty much, although it’s not only for Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Anglicans/Episcopalians also mark Lent as do a variety of Protestant churches. That fact never ceases to amaze me. Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians all observe 40 days of prayer and fasting prior to Easter. I don’t get that. You don’t want all the razzle-dazzle (pope, saints, relics, gnarly statues for days) but you want the weeks of self-denial and reflection on mortality?
Q: What about other Protestant groups, like the ones who go to church in basketball arenas and wave their hands a lot?
A: Not for them. Lent is pretty much witchcraft once you get south of Presbyterianism.
Q: So the deal is you give up Twitter or chocolate or something, and that establishes your self-denying bona fides with the creator of the universe?
A: You got it! No, the idea is to combine self denial with prayer and “almsgiving,” which these days is supposed to be heightened contributions, either in cash or in kind, to the needy. The combination of all three is supposed to produce dispassion and humility as Christians reflect on their lives, their mortality, and their service to God.
Q: In practice, who does all that?
A: The Orthodox, pretty much. And the Eastern Catholics.
Q: Those dudes are super into God.
A: God and beards, yes. The discipline is stricter there – for one thing, Lent lasts 50 days, and the prohibitions are much more detailed. They’re basically vegan for the duration – no meat, eggs, or dairy products. They also fast from the Eucharist itself, although this fast is broken on Saturdays and Sundays. Oh, and no booze.
Q: Do they lord that over you Latin Church sissies?
A: As the Orthodox saying goes, “The devil never eats.” External pride in fasting is therefore sinful. The ideal is to keep it between you and God, but I imagine it’s hard when you are living vegan and have to listen to Catholics whine about giving up french fries. You would probably want to scream “I haven’t had protein since February, you filioque-reciting creep!” at those moments.
Q: Vegans get plenty of protein, dude.
A: I kid my vegan brothers.
Q: So I take it Catholics and Protestants don’t go vegan during Lent?
A: I don’t know what Protestants do, but I suspect such devotion to fasting seems “too ethnic” (I kid my Protestant brothers). On the Catholic side, the Latin Church used to be just as hardcore as the Eastern Church, prescribing a vegan diet for Lent. That’s why Shrove Tuesday was Pancake Day in the British Isles; they made tons of pancakes and similar foods to use up all the leftover eggs and butter before the fast.
Q: Pancake Day!
A: I know. That gradually changed over the course of the Reformation, as Protestants exchanged Catholic devotional practices for pudding-bowl haircuts and shame and the Catholic Church became the bloated face of European empire. It was hard to get bloated imperialists to cut back on the cheese. Eventually, Vatican II established the following rules: abstinence from meat on Fridays during Lent, and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (fasting, in this case, meaning eating a single non-meat meal). Also, Catholics and Protestants have made a folk custom out of the quasi-official direction to give something up for the duration; this is how we get people giving up pedicures and swearing and lattes and things like that.
Q: Has anyone ever been, like, for Lent I’m giving up on religion? Or, like, I’m giving up on Lent?
A: No one has ever said those things. You should put them on a website to get credit for your ideas.
Q: So what do you do? You don’t go all Eastern Rite on Lent, do you?
A: No, I fully acknowledge my lack of hardcore fasting credentials. I don’t eat meat or drink alcohol during Lent, and I also give up other stuff. I am just as capable of the seemingly superficial gesture as anyone, although I don’t expect sympathy because I’m not eating chocolate.
Q: So what’s the deal with the junk on people’s foreheads? How does that fit into your primitive death ritual?
A: Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent for Western Christians. For Catholics (and, I believe, Anglicans/Episcopalians) there’s a special church service. The palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday have been burnt, and the priest draws the shape of a cross on your forehead with those ashes. As he does so, he urges you to remember that you will die, more or less. It’s to put us into the right frame of mind for the penitential season. In Carneval/Mardi Gras cultures, it’s also quite a hangover after the big party.
Q: You guys have to do this, right? Or you get kicked out of heaven?
A: For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, i.e., not a day when you have to go to church. This is good for me, because I am ambivalent towards Ash Wednesday. Back when I covered the legislature in Connecticut, Ash Wednesday was a big day for all the lawmakers and lobbyists to show off how Catholic they were, despite spending all their waking hours comprehensively violating any semblance of Christian morality. It struck me as a gross display of in-group mentality combined with the count-the-room instincts of all politicians (Connecticut has a huge Catholic population). I hated it, and so I stopped going to Ash Wednesday services.
Q: Are you going to go this year?
A: This year I have to do my father’s taxes, which involved three hours of hunting, collating, and scanning last night, only to find the accountant’s email can’t accept anything so large as an emoticon. So on my lunch break, instead of getting ashes on my forehead, I will remember my mortality by driving to Enfield with a sheaf of tax documents.
Q: Don’t forget the almsgiving, amigo.
A: The penitential season is off to a bumpy start.