Ash Wednesday

Instruction for Lent
by Leonard Goffine, 1871

Who instituted Lent?

According to the fathers of the Church, Justinus and Irenaeus, the fast before Easter was instituted and sanctified by Christ Himself; according to the saints Leo and Jerome, the holy apostles ordained it after Jesus’ example.

Why is the fast required, and why for forty days before Easier?

In imitation of Christ’s forty days’ fast for us; to participate in the fasting and sufferings of Christ, by voluntary mortification, as did St. Paul, who sought thus to fill up what was wanting of the sufferings of Christ (Col. i. 24.); that we may subject our flesh to the spirit, and mortify our evil desires; that we may lead a pure life, and thus prepare for the holy festival of Easter, and the reception of the divine Lamb, Jesus; and, finally, that we may render God satisfaction for our sins, and do penance, as Pope Gregory says, by one short fast, lasting for only the tenth part of a year, for the sins of one whole year.

Was fasting observed in old times as well as in the present?

Yes, but much more strictly; for the people then not only abstained from meat, as now, but also from all that which is connected with it, such as: eggs, butter, cheese, &c, even from wine and fish, although this was not the general command of the Church; they fasted all day, and only ate in the evening after vespers, in remembrance of which, vespers are now said before dinner-time, because the Church, as a kind mother, now permits the supper to be changed into a dinner, and also allows something to be taken in the evening, that the body may not be too much weakened, and unfitted for labor.

How much does this ancient custom shame the Christians of today who think the fast in our times too strict! “But,” asks St. Ambrose, “what sort of Christians are they? Christ, who never sinned, fasted for our sins, and we will not fast for our own great and numerous sins?”

How should the holy season of Lent be spent?

As according to the teaching of St. Leo, the main thing in fasting is not the abstinence from food, which is unavailingly kept from the body, if the mind is not at the same time withdrawn from wickedness, we should strive during Lent, not only to be temperate in eating and drinking, but especially to lead a modest life, sanctifying the days by persevering prayer and devoutly attending church.

Prayer for the beginning of Lent

Almighty God! I unite myself at the beginning of this holy season of penance with the Church militant, endeavoring to make these really days of sorrow for my sins and crucifixion of the sensual man. O Lord Jesus! in union with Thy fasting and passion, I offer Thee my fasting in obedience to the Church, for Thy honor, and in thanksgiving for the many favors I have received, in satisfaction for mine and others’ sins, and that I may receive the grace to avoid the sin of _________, and to practise the virtue of __________.

Instruction for Ash Wednesday

Why is this day thus named?

Because on this day the Church blesses ashes, and places them on the heads of her faithful children, with the words: “Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Why is this done?

St. Charles Borromeo gives us the following reasons for this practice: that the faithful may be moved to the heart’s sincere humility; that the heavenly blessing may descend upon them, by which they, being really penitent, will weep with their whole soul for their sins, remembering how earth was cursed because of sin, and we thus have all to return to the dust of earth; that strength to do true penance may be given the body; and that our soul may be endowed with divine force to persevere in penance.

With such thoughts let the ashes be put upon your head, while you ask in all humility and with a contrite heart, for God’s mercy and grace.

Does it please God, that for such reasons, ashes should be put upon our heads?

It does, for God Himself commanded the Israelits to put ashes on themselves for a sign of repentance. (Jer. xxv. : 4.) Thus did David (Ps. ci. 10.) who even strewed ashes on his bread; the Ninivites (Jonas iii. 5.), Judith (Jud. ix.), Mardochai (Esth. iv.), Job (Job xlii. 6.), &c. The Christians of the earliest times followed this practice as often as they did public penance for their sins.

Why from this day until the end of Lent, are the altars draped in violet?

Because, as has been already said, the holy season of Lent is a time of sorrow and penance for sin, and the Church desires externally to demonstrate, by the violet with which she drapes the altar, by the violet vestments worn by the priests, and by the cessation of the organ and festive singing, that we in quiet mourning are bewailing our sins; and to still further impress the spirit of penance upon us, there is usually only a simple crucifix or a picture from Christ’s passion, left visible upon the altar, and devoutly gazing it, the heart is generally prepared for contrition.

In the Introit of this day’s Mass the Church uses the following words by which to make known her zeal for penance, and to move God to mercy: Thou, O Lord, hast mercy on all, and hatest none of those things, which thou hast created; thou winkest at the sins of men, to draw them to repentance, and thou pardonest them; because thou art the Lord our God. (Wis. xi. 24. 25.) Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me; for my soul trusteth in thee. (Ps. lvi. 2.) Glory be to the Father, &c.

PRAYER OF THE CHURCH. Grant, O Lord, that Thy faithful may enter on this solemn fast with suitable piety, and go through it for the benefit of their salvation. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, &c.

LESSON, (Joel ii. 12 – 19.) Thus saith the Lord: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, in weeping, and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil. Who knoweth but he will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the Church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of the bride-chamber. Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord’s ministers, shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and give not thine inheritance to reproach, that the heathens should rule over them. Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God? The Lord hath been zealous for his land, and hath spared his people. And the Lord answered and said to his people: Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations: saith the Lord Almighty.

EXPLANATION. The Prophet Joel exhorts the Jews to sorrow and penance for their sins, that they might evade the expected judgment to be sent by God upon the city of Jerusalem. He required of them to show their repentance not merely by rending their garments, a sign of mourning with the Jews, but by a truly contrite heart. By this lesson from the prophet, the Church wishes, we should see plainly what qualities our penance should possess, if we desire reconciliation with God, forgiveness of our sins, and deliverance at the Last Day, which qualities are not merely abstinence from food and amusements, but the practice of real mortification of our evil inclinations, thus becoming with our whole heart converted to God.

GOSPEL. (Matt. vi. 16 – 21.) At That Time: Jesus said to his disciples: When you fast be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face: that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father, who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, will reward thee. Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do no break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.

EXPLANATION: Jesus forbids us to look for the praises of men, when performing good works, of which the fast is one, and that which is still worse, to do good, as the Pharisees, from hypocrisy. He also warns us against avarice and the desire for temporal riches, urging us to employ our temporal goods, in giving alms, and doing works of charity, thus laying up treasures of meritorious deeds in heaven, which are there rewarded and will last there forever. “What folly,” says St. Chrysostom, “to leave our goods where we cannot stay, instead of sending them before us where we are going–to heaven!”


Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. A Blessed Ash Wednesday and beginning of Lent to all my readers.  It is time to pray and do penance, as the Mother of God asked of us in her approved apparitions.

~Damsel of the Faith

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