Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The bishops gathered in Nicaea knew the pain of suffering. They believed the consequences of mortification not without salutary benefit. They had tasted both the grief of it when inflicted by others and now they saw the grace of it when borne voluntarily. The previous history of some three days of penitential devotion was extended to forty days and the focus was expanded from pentience to catechesis. This was the time when the catechumens were prepared for baptism and all the faithful were reminded of the chief parts of the faith.
The practice of the Lenten fasts and penances varied until, in the seventh century, the West established Ash Wednesday, exempting the Sundays but keeping a full forty days for the season of solemn preparation. Already at the time of the Council of Nicaea, however, the Church in Jerusalem had eight five-day weeks of Lent so the practice was an amalgamation of earlier varied traditions and not necessarily something brand new. The word "Lent" has its source in the Old English word "lencten," itself a reference to the coming of spring with its lengthening of the daylight.
So we begin by joining with our for bearers who have seen the wisdom of fasting before feasting, of somber and pentitential devotion as a prelude to the remembrance of Holy Week and the restoration of the Alleluias of Easter. There are countless variations of the traditions associated with the season that begins tomorrow -- not all good. The use of the fat or lard for the sumptuous cakes and breads of Shrove Tuesday (Fasching in German) has given way to a few days of extreme self-indulgence that is seldom followed with much regret or contrition. But Mardi Gras has little real connection to the faith except the timing.
I recall not where I read it or from whom this poem comes, but it has a certain affection for me as I think about tomorrow:
Once in winter,
White flakes brushing my face
With white fingers,
I waited with the others
We shivered on the steps--
Stuck out our tongues to catch snowflakes
So cold they would burn.
Soon the big doors would open
On smoke and candles
and a cold thumb would brush
My forehead with a cross of ashes
"Dust to Dust" he would mutter
While snowflakes melted in my hair.