Ash Wednesday, 13th February: ‘Dust to dust…’   Leave a comment

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, meaning ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-

 

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 c...

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 cm (detail) Polski: Popielec, akwarela, karton, 78 x 113 cm (frag.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

 

Lent

Lent (Photo credit: jezobeljones)

 

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

 

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

 

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantageous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day

 

English: Acolytes extinguishing candles after ...

English: Acolytes extinguishing candles after an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormandizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May.

 

 

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