Ash Wednesday initiates the 40-day liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a season of penance, fasting and almsgiving to prepare for the magnificent Easter celebration.
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are imposed on the head, a traditional act of repentance in salvation history. The ashes originate from palms from previous Palm Sundays. When the ashes are imposed, we hear one of two admonitions:
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or,
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two days of universal fasting and abstinence from meat. Those aged 18-59 fast from food, and those aged 14 and older also abstain from consuming meat in the food they consume. These obligations help train spiritual self-denial and remind us of the lives of those who regularly go hungry.
While not a holy day of obligation, more people attend Ash Wednesday Masses than nearly any other celebration. People of all backgrounds beautifully want to return to God and, united with the Body of Christ, acknowledge we are sinners and need God’s great mercy.
In these six weeks of Lent, we give alms to the poor and fast from some of the good things of life in order to make more space for God. It’s not just about “giving things up” but also “taking things up,” which will help us to grow in loving relationship with God and our neighbors. Spending even just a little extra time with God in prayer can make a big difference. In prayer, God reminds us who we are and what is most important. We also lift up the needs of our neighbors and world to God, who is able to provide far more than we ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)
God wants to hang out with you in prayer. Jesus loves it when you tell him how you’re doing, strive to listen for him to speak and ask for what you need for yourself and others. Consider scheduling 15 minutes each day this Lent to be with God in prayer, and experience the difference it makes in your life. For help getting started, see archmil.org/one-percent-prayer.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 2, with the use of blessed ashes made from palms and branches used the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes serve as a visible reminder of the Lenten emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. During the 40 days of Lent, these three aspects of Lent are meant to prepare the Christian for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection on Easter.
The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word “Lenten,” which meant “springtime.” Lent is the Church’s spring – a time for renewal and a reminder of the new life of baptism.
- All between the ages of 18 and 59 are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- All who are 14 and older observe abstinence on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of Lent. All others are encouraged to fast and abstain in ways appropriate to their circumstances.
- Fasting means one full meal each day with the other meals not equaling a full meal. Eating between meals is not allowed, but liquids are allowed.
- Abstinence means that no meat or meat products are allowed. If health or ability to work would be seriously affected, fast and abstinence do not apply.
The 40 days of Lent gives each of us a chance to really examine our lives and answer the question in Psalm 116:12:
How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me?
During this special season of Lent, we live our lives a little differently as we move from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It is a great opportunity to look at how we use the many gifts given to us by God.
The purpose of almsgiving is to ease the suffering and burdens of others in need. Making monetary donations is a priority. But almsgiving goes beyond money.
Almsgiving is cleaning out your closet from clothes you are not wearing and donating them to a charity. Almsgiving is volunteering at your kids’ school, at your parish or food pantry, or taking a meal to a family in need. Almsgiving is helping an elderly neighbor with a chore or shoveling their driveway for them when the snow falls. Almsgiving is sharing a smile with a stranger.
How can we repay the Lord, considering all God has done for us: every breath we have been given, every meal we have eaten, every comfort in our lives? Through almsgiving, being aware of God’s generosity each and every day – through Lent and beyond. Give generously.
People of all faiths love a good Wisconsin fish fry, but Catholicism in particular is battered and deep-fried into the backstory of this culinary tradition. When European immigrants settled in Wisconsin in the 19th century, they brought with them their Catholic faith — and the requirement to abstain from eating meat or meat-derived foods on Friday. The abundance of locally caught fish made dining on lake perch, smelts, bluegill and walleye an easy choice, and before long, the fish fry had become popular “as a form of parish fundraiser and community builder,” said Fr. Steven Avella, a Catholic Herald contributor and professor of history at Marquette University. Despite abstinence being limited to the Fridays of Lent in 1966, the tradition has endured and even flourished.
“Fish fries provide a great source of revenue for parishes looking to pay off debts,” Fr. Avella said. “They help parishioners bond as they come together on a Friday night after a week of work. There is nothing too penitential about them — there is an array of food, drink and often very tasty desserts. They are a Wisconsin Catholic tradition — and a lot of work for the devoted folks who prepare the food, serve it and clean up afterward.”
Hispanic Lenten traditions
There are many time-honored traditions associated with Lent in the Hispanic Catholic communities, from novenas and vigils, to visiting churches, to offering heartfelt condolences to Mary.
In addition, Hispanic Catholics participate in the Via Crucis (the way of the Cross), accompanying Jesus on the way to Calvary. It bears noting that St. Patrick Parish, Racine, will host a live Via Crucis at 3 p.m. on Good Friday. Many parishes throughout the archdiocese will celebrate a meditated Via Crucis.
Preaching of Las Siete Palabras, the last seven “words” that Jesus expressed as he agonized on the Cross, is another solemn and favored tradition. Some Mexican families visit seven churches on Good Friday and prepare seven dishes (seven cazuelas) during Lent.
Day of Reconciliation
What started as a Sacramental Event to help celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2019 has now become a yearly Lenten Event. “Pray, Reconcile, Rejoice: Lenten Day of Reconciliation” is a day that parishes throughout the archdiocese open their doors and offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation from morning until evening. “Pray, Reconcile, Rejoice: Lenten Day of Reconciliation” will take place Tuesday, April 5, at 13 parishes around the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For a listing of hosting parishes and the times that the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be offered, visit https://www.archmil.org/Pray-Reconcile-Rejoice.
RCIA and the Rite of Election
Every year at the Easter Vigil, adults and children of catechetical age are baptized and confirmed, and receive Holy Communion for the first time. It is always a joyful event to see the eyes these new Christians shine with the radiance of sacramental grace, as God claims them as his adopted sons and daughters. Their initiation is the culmination of a long journey of conversion, marked by various rites spread out over the course of the year. This process is known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or simply RCIA.
The season of Lent marks the final period of preparation for these soon-to-be Christians with a ritual known as the Rite of Election. At this rite, on the basis of testimony by godparents and catechists, the Church judges the readiness of these individuals and “elects,” or chooses, them for the sacraments of initiation at the upcoming Easter Vigil. The ritual is called election because “the acceptance of the Church is founded on the election by God, in whose name the Church acts.” (RCIA 119)
Holy Week begins with the celebration of Palm Sunday, which commemorates the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. During the celebration, we recreate the scriptural account of Jesus’ entrance in the holy city, the event that set in motion Jesus’ Passion and our own entering into Holy Week by distributing and blessing palm branches. In many places, this is also accomplished by beginning Mass outside the actual church. The assembly will process into the sanctuary, in song and shaking the branches, mirroring the way in which the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed and accompanied Jesus. The Gospel of the Passion from the synoptics is read (this year Luke’s account), usually with different lectors assigned different parts, reserving the part of Jesus to the priest, and often including the congregation to read the part of the crowd. There is a lot to reflect about on this day. This is why this Sunday is also called Passion Sunday. While we think Passion may refer to the intensity of the events we read about, the word comes from the Latin passio, as in passivity, it actually refers to the way in which Jesus allows this suffering to happen, in absolute submission to God’s plan for him. We can also reflect about how the crowds that are singing Hosanna on this day will soon take an active role in bringing about Jesus’ death.
Each year during Holy Week, every diocese around the world gathers at their Cathedral for the celebration of the Chrism Mass. At the Chrism Mass, the local bishop blesses large quantities of the three oils that will be used to celebrate the sacraments during the coming year: the oil of catechumen, the oil of the sick and the oil of chrism. After the Mass, these oils are distributed to parishes and priests for use in celebrating the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and ordination. The chrism oil is also used in the dedication ceremony of a new church, anointing the altar and the walls.
This year, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will celebrate the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 12. Along with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, our auxiliary bishops, priests and deacons, each parish and religious community will be invited to send a delegate to attend the Mass.
Holy Thursday begins the Paschal Triduum, which, since the fourth century, commemorated the Paschal Mystery — that is, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. On this day, the Church commemorates the historical Gospel events surrounding the Last Supper Jesus shared with his Apostles. In the Early Church, Holy Thursday was the day repentant sinners were absolved and re-incorporated into the parish community so they could participate in the paschal festivities; new oils to be used at baptisms and confirmations at the Easter Vigil were consecrated; and Christians in Jerusalem would gather at the approximate place and hour that Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper to imitate the tradition. Remembering the institution of the Eucharist is at the heart of Holy Thursday.
Parish liturgies take place in the evening and with a joyful tone. White vestments are worn, bells are rung and the Glory to God, not sung since the beginning Lent, resounds for a brief moment until it returns at the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is empty so all the faithful may receive from bread consecrated at that Mass. After the Gloria, the sound of bells is silent until the Easter Vigil, symbolizing the humiliation and suffering of Jesus.
On Good Friday, the Church commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. This moment will be completed the following day as the Saturday night hours change into Sunday morning and death turns into resurrection. On this day, we read John the Evangelist’s account of how Jesus was mocked and beaten, ordered to carry the cross, crucified and put to death, which might make it difficult to see what is so “good” about Good Friday. The good in Good Friday emphasizes our salvation, which comes from the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Good Friday is the only day of the year that a Mass is not celebrated, which reflects the sacrificial action of Jesus on the cross. The solemn and reverent tradition of venerating the cross dates back to the fourth century, when Christians would gather at Golgotha, where relics of the cross were displayed. As people would process past these relics, they would touch them with their forehead and then kiss them. By the eighth century, the relics of the cross were transferred to Rome, and with them, the tradition of venerating them on Good Friday. This is the origin of our adoration of the Holy Cross.
Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil
Holy Saturday is the day the Church waits with prayer and fasting for the resurrection of the Lord. It is a day of meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, as well as his descent into hell. We wait with anticipation for the resurrection of Christ.
At nightfall on Holy Saturday, Christians will gather around a blazing fire. An Easter candle, prominently decorated with the symbols of Christ’s suffering and divinity, is lit from that fire. From this one light, the candles of hundreds will be lit and the church illumined. It is important that the liturgy for the Vigil begin and end in darkness so that the light of the candle can truly break the darkness of the night, just as Christ, risen in glory, shatters the darkness of the world. The readings that are proclaimed tell the stories of all that God has done for his people from the beginning of time. As daylight approaches, water is blessed and new Christians are baptized. It is the night when the Church is called to the feast the Lord has prepared for us as a memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again in glory.
Easter Sunday is the principal feast of the liturgical year and the day when the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection was the sign of new beginnings. It is most appropriate that here in the northern hemisphere, Easter Sunday coincides with springtime, when, after the long winter, signs of new life are seen all around us. The theme of Easter morning echoes that of the Easter Vigil in remembering and celebrating the very foundation of our faith – Jesus is raised from the dead, and those who believe and are baptized share in his resurrection to new life. This is a theme that will continue for 50 days until Pentecost Sunday.
The date of Easter changes every year because it coincides with the Jewish Passover. When Jesus rose from the dead in the resurrection, his first followers understood this to be the fulfillment of all that the Passover meant for them – the passage from the old times of slavery and oppression to spiritual freedom and new life. Easter is always celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or immediately after the vernal (spring) equinox.