Just three days after “Super Bowl Sunday,” on February 6, the Christian world tunes in for another kind of “kick-off.” Ash Wednesday “kicks off” Lent, the forty-day season that prepares us for Easter.  If you are thinking that Lent seems awfully early this year, you’re right.  February 6 is the earliest date for Ash Wednesday since the middle of the nineteenth century.  Easter—unlike Christmas and most other religious feasts—is a “moveable feast.”  This year, Easter is March 23. But in 2007, it was April 8. Next year, in 2009, Western Christians will celebrate Easter on April 12.

Our Long History with Lent 

What the Church asks of Catholics during Lent today is very different than what was asked of Catholics long ago. From the seventh century on, Catholics were to abstain from some foods during Lent. No meat, no dairy products and no eggs! The word “Lent” was Anglo-Saxon in origin and meant “springtime.”  These forty days limiting the food people were eating had some seasonal logic as well.  During the spring, sheep, cattle and fowl were giving birth or hatching their young.  Slaughtering livestock in the Spring was particularly wasteful. Also, grain, dried vegetables and fruits from the previous year’s harvest were running out. So,  it made sense that thick soups, vegetable dishes, fish and breads made without eggs or milk were on the Lenten menu—day in, day out.

Fasting regulations dictated the amount of food that people were permitted to consume. Portions were to be much smaller. Meal preparations were to be much simpler. It was also common for people of all ages to “give up” or “fast” from sweets, special treats, or entertainments they were fond of. Lent, made people lean, hungry, and sometimes cranky. By the end of Lent, Christians everywhere could hardly wait for the Easter celebration and feasting that broke the fast. 

The “Three Pillars of Lent”

During Lent, the Church asks Catholics to really focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  These three practices are called the “Three Pillars of Lent.” It is these three practices that Jesus highlights in the Gospel passage the Church selected for proclamation on Ash Wednesday (Mt 6:1-6;16-18). In Lent, the Church hopes that Catholics will find spiritual nourishment in the Gospel, in prayer, in the Mass, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and in charitable works and outreach.

Today, Catholics are freed from the rigid dietary regulations of the past.

But, we are not freed from the observance of Lent.  The Church asks all

Catholics to take Lent seriously and that’s not always easy.  Many people view Lenten observances as a silly “blast from the past.” They make jokes about giving up candy, ice cream, Starbucks, or “Gossip Girls,” implying that there’s much greater merit in doing “something positive,” such as helping an elderly neighbor, cooking a meal for a shut-in, babysitting for free or simply sharing jokes and friendship. 

Emphasize with your students that Lent is all of this and then some. However, traditional Lenten practices should certainly be presented as positive, relevant, and effective tools for spiritual growth. “Giving up” a favorite food or recreation for six weeks does take some strength of character and certainly won’t harm anyone’s health. If it’s done, however, it should be done, as Jesus advises, “in secret” and without seeking approval and praise. 

Lenten Regulations

The “Three Pillars of Lent” are general Lenten practices advocated by the Church. There are specific regulations, as well. Let your students know what these regulations are:
• Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
• Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.
• Fasting as explained by the U.S. bishops means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equaling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening—depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal.
• Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Request

In this year’s Ash Wednesday letter to the Church, the pope asks Catholics to pay particular attention to almsgiving. Pope Benedict XVI referred to the Gospel, saying that we are really not the owners, but the administrators of our possessions. We are to act as stewards of what we have on behalf of those in need around the world. 

Plan to spend some time discussing these principles about ownership vs. stewardship with your students. Catholic social teaching really does confront modern American materialism, and the all-too-common response from that “poor people are just lazy.” Many people will also resist appeals for almsgiving with the response, “I work hard for what I get. What’s mine is mine!” 

The Cross of Ashes

Parishes all across the country know that Ash Wednesday—like Christmas and Easter—will draw surprisingly large crowds. Even inactive Catholics want that cross of ashes on their foreheads. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” the minister of ashes declares as sooty crosses are traced across our foreheads.  A second formula reminds recipients of ashes: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Remind your students that these ashes are burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday that have been blessed. The sprinkling or tracing of ashes isn’t just a “Catholic thing.” All through the Old Testament, Israel’s prophets called for repentance, symbolized by the wearing of rough sackcloth, and by the pouring of ashes over a penitent’s head. In the early history of the Church, these or similar customs were followed by those seeking reconciliation with the Church after serious sin. Near the end of the eleventh century, Pope Urban II mandated the imposition of ashes for all Catholics on Ash Wednesday.

Lenten Lesson Plans
1. Briefly summarize major points about Ash Wednesday and Lent as you see fit.  Much of the background material could be presented in brief presentations during the first week or two of Lent. 

2. Poll students about how they plan to observe Lent. Ask them to offer practical suggestions for each other. Encourage real – but sustainable – commitments.

3. Divide the class into three groups and distribute copies of the Ash Wednesday Gospel Mt 6:1-6, 16-18. Assign one group to read what Jesus advises about prayer, another to focus on alms-giving and the third on what Jesus says about fasting. Allow ten to fifteen minutes for discussion. Call on the groups to tell how these Gospel messages can be applied to the way Catholic teens observe Lent. 

Applying the Lesson

1. Assign a small core of students to investigate local outreach programs. When they report back, have the class vote for a Lenten project to help the hungry, homeless or lonely. In the spirit of Matthew’s Gospel, caution students to serve “in secret.”
2. Recruit a local speaker (parent/ teacher/ community leader) to talk about personal prayer and what a difference it has made to his or her life and work.