From ashes to Easter: Five tidbits about the Lenten season

Lent is full of traditions that remind us of our mortality and give us hope for our salvation. Dive deeper into the significance and fun facts of this season and why they matter for Catholics and Christians around the world.

Where do the palms for Palm Sunday come from?

Many of the palms for Catholic churches in North America come from California, Florida, Texas, Mexico and countries in Latin America.

Photo Pixabay

The palms parishioners receive on Palm Sunday can vary in how they look — this is largely based on the soil and temperature of where they come from, as well as how they are harvested. These palms have been months in the making, and the churches order them plenty of time in advance through church supply stores. When they arrive, it’s important the palms are preserved in the proper temperature so they don’t dry up. These palms will eventually be burned and used for the next year’s ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Why does attendance spike during Ash Wednesday Mass?

Based on the numbers of attendance, some would be surprised to learn that Ash Wednesday isn’t a holy day of obligation. Catholics aren’t required to attend Mass this day, yet attendance numbers often soar in comparison to regular weekend Mass.

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Even people who don’t attend church on a regular basis or perhaps at all might show up to an Ash Wednesday service. Whether these participants enjoy the rich tradition of this day or appreciate receiving the physical symbol of ashes, it’s clear that something draws people of all ages and walks of life to the Ash Wednesday service each year. It speaks most importantly to the inherent human desire that we were made for something greater than this world.

What was the Last Supper really like?

A few years ago, archaeologists researched what type of food would have been common in Jerusalem during the time of the Last Supper, which Christ shared with his apostles. According to their findings, which they share in their book Gerusalemme: L’Ultima Cena (Jerusalem, the Last Supper), the meal would have included lamb meat, bitter herbs and olives along with the wine and unleavened bread. Jesus and his apostles likely would have been seated on cushions on the floor, unlike the popular portrayal of the group sitting at a long table, and would have shared food from the same dish.

Isn’t Lent more than 40 days long?

Because Sundays aren’t included in Western Christianity (they are in Eastern Christianity), Lent technically lasts 46 days. Throughout the year — including Lent — Sundays represent the joy that Christ’s resurrection brings us, which is why they aren’t counted during this solemn season.

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The number 40 is also symbolic in the Church’s history, as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, Noah built an ark to survive the flood brought on by 40 days and nights of rain, and Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 Commandments. These occurrences are essential stories in our faith’s history and references to the beauty that comes from perseverance and sacrifice. And, according to the USCCB, Sundays “are certainly part of the time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.”

Why do Catholics abstain from meat on Friday, and often opt for fish instead?

Before Vatican II, Catholics didn’t just abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent, but every Friday of the year. Some of today’s faithful continue that tradition, but not eating meat is only required on Fridays of Lent, as well as Ash Wednesday.

Photo Flickr

Catholics offer this small sacrifice in remembrance of Christ’s passion — which, according to all four Gospels, took place on a Friday. Throughout the Church’s history, meat has been viewed as a worthy sacrifice as it has been and remains a staple of many celebratory meals — including holidays like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. Why isn’t fish included? The USCCB clarifies that abstinence laws of the Church include meat that only comes from land animals. This might be because historically, fish has not been a staple of a celebratory meal, and although dishes like crab and lobster have become more of a treat in today’s culture, Catholics are called to remember Christ’s suffering and unite their sacrifices to his, not to take advantage of this aspect of the law.

COMING UP: A guide to finding the Lenten resolutions you actually need

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Go beyond giving up chocolate this Lent. The capital or deadly sins were not named for being unforgivable or because of their gravity; but, rather, because they are the sins that give rise to other sins.

This Lent, we invite you to examine your life and ask yourself what is driving you away from Jesus. Once you have found your top one or two sins, make a resolution to practice its opposing virtue. The following ideas are meant to accompany the recommended practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, confession and communion.


We can describe pride as a disordered appreciation of ourselves. This sin can become evident in acts of vanity or boasting about our looks, intelligence, possessions, etc., to claim superiority over others.

Its opposing virtue is humility. Humility is not about having low self-esteem or disregarding our gifts and abilities. It’s about truth, acknowledging who God is and who we are, and putting him at the center of our lives. Here are a few resolutions from Mother Teresa:

  • Speak as little as possible about yourself.
  • Accept small inconveniences with good humor.
  • Don’t speak to be admired or loved.
  • Don’t dwell on the faults of others.
  • Give in, in discussions, even if you’re right.

In a society that has heavily sexualized marketing and made access to explicit content easy, disordered actions of sexuality abound. Chastity is its opposing virtue, and it’s defined as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his body and spiritual being.” How do we reach that integration and unity? Here are a few resolutions that can help in the painstaking process:

  • Be faithful to prayer: Set up a specific time every day and consider it a priority.
  • Acquire self-mastery by fasting from something you really like.
  • Write down the occasions that have led you to sin and work to avoid them.
  • Never be idle, pick up a go-to hobby: a sport, instrument, writing — something hands-on.
  • Only use your phone when necessary, limit social media significantly (to 15 min. a day?)

Also known as greed and covetousness, this sin is a disordered desire for material possessions, including power. Its opposite virtues are liberality and generosity; in other words, giving of ourselves. So how can we do more of that this Lent? Here are a few no-brainers. And who knows? You might be surprised by how doing these will make a profoundly positive impact on your overall state of being:

  • Give to a parish/charity “until it hurts,” as Mother Teresa used to say.
  • Do not cut corners in your work, responsibilities.
  • Fill your heart with Jesus — go to adoration at least one hour a week.
  • Be hospitable with your visitors — find joy in giving.

The Catechism defines anger as “a desire for revenge,” that is, desiring vengeance to do evil to someone. There is of course righteous anger, which is not bad, but we often struggle with the not-so-righteous one. Its opposing virtue is meekness, which is not the same as weakness; rather, it is the virtue that helps us keep possession of ourselves during adversities. Here are a few ways to increase our own meekness this Lent:

  • Don’t get caught up in other people’s own anger — focus on yourself and how you can respond.
  • Use your anger to better yourself and strengthen your resolve to grow in virtue.
  • Try to avoid social media and other occasions that give rise to unhealthy anger.
  • If you do get angry, take a minute; don’t react right away. Ask the Lord for patience and visualize yourself responding the way you would like to.

Envy is the sin of being saddened or distressed at another’s well-being because we think it takes away from our own excellence or makes us less lovable. This, of course, is a lie — and it’s defeated by love and gratitude:

  • Enter into the presence of God and remember that that he loves you uniquely and unconditionally. This alone is where your worth lies
  • Open your eyes to the abundance of blessings in your own life — make a list and revisit it daily.
  • Count the blessings you encounter every day and thank God for each one.
  • Work on pointing out, congratulating and rejoicing in others’ accomplishments and efforts.
  • Pray for the person you feel envy towards, that God may lead both them and you to holiness.

Although it’s not bad to find pleasure in a delicious meal, “it is a defect to eat like beasts,” as St. Alphonsus Liguori put it. This, of course, includes overindulging in food or drink, but also doing it too soon, too expensively, too eagerly or too daintily, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. This vice is defeated by the virtue of temperance, which allows us to control our natural appetite for pleasure and enjoy whatever we do in accord with reason. A few ideas to acquire it:

  • Practice fasting twice a week, eating one full meal and two smaller meals that don’t equal the big meal.
  • Moderate your food consumption — don’t eat between meals.
  • Abstain from the ingredient/food you like the most.
  • Get used to saying “no” to things you don’t really need, especially at the store.
  • Eat slowly and pray before and after your meals.

This sin — often referred to as acedia, laziness or boredom — is a type of sadness or unwillingness to do something that is physically or spiritually good because of the work it requires. A few things that can help us overcome this vice are finding love (which, ultimately, is the remedy to all these sins), practicing leisure and working on consistency. A youngster in love does anything for his beloved — and fast. The saints accomplished what they did because they loved.

  • We imagine often what we desire, and desire what we imagine often. So, work on letting Jesus become the center of your imaginations and the sweetness of your life. Imagine him calling you by your name.
  • Plan your leisure time, especially Sundays. It’s not idleness or laziness, but rather enjoying an activity that nurtures your humanity and is not meant for utility: learn to play an instrument, read a book you actually enjoy, practice a sport, do a family activity, go to the museum, etc.
  • Offer up your suffering for an intention, especially when you feel like you have to drag yourself to accomplish anything.
  • Wake up as soon as your alarm goes off. If you give yourself time to think about it, you’ve already lost.