Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in many Western Christian churches. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ashes were an external sign of repentance in the Jewish tradition which Christians maintained for Lent. This practice is found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the late 8th century. Two centuries later, Ælfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot, wrote of the rite of throwing ashes on people’s heads at the start of Lent. Most Protestant denominations discontinued the practice, but the Church of England maintained it for a number of years before abandoning it also. Since the 1960s a great many Protestant denominations have taken up the tradition again in ecumenical spirit.
In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance – a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. Let’s distinguish between fasting and abstinence. Fasting requires eating less than usual, while abstinence involves avoiding certain foods. You can fast without abstinence, and abstain without fasting. Historically the church “fasts” involved more abstinence than actual fasting.
According to the contemporary canon, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal a full meal. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement before the 1960s, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.
Ash Wednesday is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year starting on a Sunday.)
Practices concerning fasting and abstinence have varied widely over the centuries and from region to region. The commonest rule of abstinence in Europe is to avoid meat, meaning that seafood in general is allowed. There are some rather dubious exceptions. In parts of South America, especially in Venezuela, capybara meat is popular during Lent and Holy Week. In response to a question posed by French settlers in Quebec in the 17th century, beaver was classified as an exception and in 2010 the archbishop of New Orleans said that “alligator is considered in the fish family.” The canon law basis for the classification of beaver and alligator as fish seems to rely on the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, which bases animal classification as much on habits as on anatomy. Whichever way you justify this it seems pretty craven (and legalistic) to me. Either eat meat or don’t. Finding a way to eat meat whilst pretending legally to be avoiding it is rank hypocrisy.
It’s a bit over the top to give a recipe for Ash Wednesday given that it’s supposed to be a day of both abstinence and fasting. Abstinence without fasting on traditional fast days is well attested in the Middle Ages but this is not appropriate even now for Ash Wednesday when both abstinence and fasting are recommended. Being a Presbyterian pastor I am not bound by any rules of discipline when it comes to Ash Wednesday, but I observe the day with fasting in a rather rudimentary ecumenical spirit. In years past I occasionally practiced a more rigorous fast throughout Lent based on Medieval church law. But these were optional disciplines, self imposed. Most of my friends, including Catholic clergy, were rather taken aback by the stringency of my fasting, but it was experimental as much as spiritual. I wanted to know what it felt like both physically and emotionally.
The thing is that in my (limited) experience, fasting improves the quality of feasting. An Easter dinner of roast lamb with all the trimmings is splendid always, but it is sublime after nearly 7 weeks without meat. In this regard, therefore, I see fasting as the natural partner of feasting. This little gallery may give you some idea of what to prepare today if you want to observe the beginning of the Lenten fast. The main point is to make it a real fast. Don’t gorge yourself on meatless dishes and then feel good because you have been abstinent. That’s not the point. Fasting is fasting, not abstinence only.