Ash Wednesday and Lent

Picture, in your mind, a beautiful ballroom.  Men in tuxedos and women in gowns.  An orchestra is playing beautiful music while the men and women dance the waltz and other folk dances.  There is a sumptuous buffet laid out with every kind of delicacy and delicious pastry that the mind of a master chef can conjure.  People are dancing and eating and talking and laughing.  Suddenly the bell in the high tower begins to chime midnight.  The orchestra stops playing.  The dancers standstill, the chattering stops, and forks and plates are placed on the nearest tables.  The last bell of midnight rings and the people with one voice recites, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  Give this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever amen.  The people all silently leave the ballroom.  Mardi Gras is over, and the Holy Season of Lent has begun.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent.  It is called Ash Wednesday because Catholic and Orthodox and some protestant denomination Christians receive ashes on their foreheads.

The origin of Ash Wednesday and Lent are not clear, but it is believed to have begun during the time of the Apostles but recognized officially at The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

Since that time Christians have received ashes on their foreheads as an act of repentance from sin.  Ashes themselves have been used to express sorrow for sin for centuries.  The old testament records in The Book of Job, Job saying to God “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.  Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.  The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance saying O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes.  Jesus in the New Testament refers to the use of ashes for repentance when he says in Luke 10:13 “Woe to you Chorazin!  Woe to you Bethsaida!  For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”

The ashes received on Ash Wednesday are not any ash.  In many churches, the ashes come from the burning of the palm leaves harvested for the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

The receiving of ashes is a simple ceremony, although a whole service is usually wrapped around the tradition.  When it becomes time to receive the ashes the repentant person comes forward and the ashes are placed by the priest or minister in the form of the cross.  One of two lines are said by the celebrant while placing the ashes.  “Remember oh man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” or “Repent and believe the Gospel.”  With either thought, the participant is made ready to enter the Lenten Season.

The season of Lent is the forty-day before Holy Thursday for the Catholic faith or the Forty days before Easter Sunday for some protestant faiths.  Either way, Sundays are not included in the forty-day count as they are considered “Little Easters” and the fasting and other observances are suspended on Sundays.

Lent is a time of fasting and prayer as well as a time for the giving up of certain luxuries like desserts, the movies, television, or other things that may distract us from our pursuit of coming to know God more deeply.  Ultimately, knowing God better is the pursuit of Lent.

The forty-day time of Lent comes from the forty days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry.  This event is recorded in The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  During those forty days, Jesus fasted and prayed, and in our following Him in this way we come to know Him better.

The celebration of Lent has become pretty simple for Catholics since the Second Vatican council.  Fasting has become a simple no meat on Fridays, though more rigorous fasts are not discouraged.  Prayer and attendance at mass and special services are still requested but not so much required.  This was very different in the past. 

According to Maria Von Trapp in her first book, The Story of the Trapp Family singers, Lent used to be quite the rigorous time.  Fasting was strictly observed and that meant no animal products at all.  No meat no fish, no cheese milk, or eggs, and not just on Fridays but for the full forty days.  The time spent on eating was used for prayer and the money spent on the food you would normally have had was given to the poor.

Mortifications or the giving up of certain items is a way of dying to yourself.  The scriptures say when we die to ourselves, we are raised up with Jesus and Lent is a time to put those ideas into action.  Many people use Lent as a time to give up things that they struggle with that are ultimately harmful.  Some folks stop smoking and this a real dying to the self.  In giving this up for Lent, it may, in turn, be given up for good.  The drinking of alcohol may also be stopped during this time and for those who have a problem with alcohol this could be life altering.  The same could be said for gambling or the consumption of fast food or unhealthy food that we have begun to rely on for self-soothing.  In giving up these things, which can be so hard, we truly die to ourselves and thus the term mortifications.

Some folks add practices during the time of Lent.  There are Lenten devotionals that will take a person on the forty-day journey by providing a Biblical reading and then thoughts and prayers as well as ideas for actions to be taken.  Many people who don’t regularly read their Bibles will make time to study the scriptures daily.  Those that do read their Bibles daily may take the time to read the Gospels and study the life of Jesus more closely.  There is a new idea for Lent that challenges us to go to our closets on each of the 40 days and look for a piece of clothing that is still in good condition, but that we no longer wear, and place that shirt, or pair of pants or dress into a bag.  At the end of the season, there will be forty pieces of clothing ready to donate to Goodwill or The Salvation Army.  This is also another dying of self.  Letting go of the things that we don’t need is a way of putting the things we own into proper perspective.

Lent is also a time of cleaning.  We don’t just get our hearts ready for the resurrection of Jesus but our homes too.  Spring Cleaning may come from the old Jewish custom of cleaning the house thoroughly so that not a speck of yeast could be found.  This was to make the house ready to celebrate Passover and the instructions to do this are found in the Old Testament.  We now clean our homes thoroughly in preparation for Easter.

This is the time of year when Spring is arriving.  Since Lent can begin as early as February it may take a little longer from year to year for the snow to melt and the weather to get a bit warmer.  But the weather does get warmer the days get longer, it is believed that the term Lent is shortened from the word length referring to the days becoming longer and the beginning of Spring, and we begin to open the windows and bring in the fresh air and get rid of the dirt that grime that accumulated during the cold months.

For some Spring cleaning is a week-long event.  Every drawer and cabinet and shelf get emptied and dusted.  This is another time that things that are no longer used can be gathered up and given away.  Toys, books, dishes, electronic devices, cooking utensils, and paraphernalia can all be given to those that don’t have what they may need.  The mattresses on the beds get turned.  The light fixtures get taken down and cleaned.  Every aspect of the house gets a good going over.

For those with lawns or gardens to care for, the outside gets as good as the inside.  The grass gets raked so the winter debris can be removed, and the new green grass can come alive.  Bulbs get planted as well as other flowers and shrubs.  Bushes and trees get trimmed and the outside of the house is made as clean and neat as the inside.  All of this is in preparation for Easter.

Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week and commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  On Palm Sunday the people of Jerusalem lined the way into the city laying palm branches on the ground for the donkey Jesus rode to walk on.

Palm Sunday Mass or Service is celebrated by the reading of The Gospel story of the event and in many churches, the celebration ends with the giving of palm leaves to the congregation to take home.  These palm leaves are then brought home and placed somewhere special in the house for the year.  Some people make decorative crosses from the palm and these crosses are placed throughout the house.  It reminds the occupants that though Palm Sunday was glorious it would lead to Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

Again, according to Maria Von Trapp, Palm Sunday was also a day when palmbuschn were brought to the church.  These were bouquets of pussy willows along with box wood and fir branches decorated with dyed colored wood shavings and fastened to a stick about three feet long.  On the stick was tied a small bottle of Holy Water and these bouquets were blessed by the priest during Mass.  After Mass, the bouquets were brought into the field and the woods each area of land getting its own thus the blessing of the church would come to the natural world so it could be protected from a flood, hail, and fire.

The customs of Ash Wednesday and Lent are thousands of years old.  They are as diverse and original as every area of the world that Christianity has made its way into.  But they continue to be celebrated because deep in our hearts we long to know God and to be known by Him.

Next Week:  The Batman

The Sound of Music and Me

It was 1965, I was four years old so I don’t expect that I saw The Sound of Music when the movie was released on April first. But the movie would begin to have it’s effects on me at that early age and would continue to the present day.

First, as I stated before, mom loved musicals and I can bet she bought that album as soon as it came out. The music from that movie would permeate our house frequently.  I remember in kindergarten one of the kids brought in an album that told the story of The Sound of Music along with the songs and I think that was my first introduction to what the movie was about.  In those day movies ran for year and I know at one point I was taken to see the film.  I, of course loved it.

Sometime in early part of the 1960’s 20th Century Fox Studios was about to close its doors.  It had begun producing movies in 1935.  20th Century Fox was responsible for such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Miracle on 34th Street, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Robe, and The Rodger’s and Hammerstein films, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the only musical they ever wrote specifically for film for 20th Century Fox which was State Fair.  Hard times had come on the studio, but they had one card left to play The Sound of Music.

Sound of Music was hit with people if not with critics on it’s 1965 release.  Christopher Plummer it’s male lead would call it The Sound of Mucus and for the studio it was The Sound of Money.  Starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music would win Best Picture at The Academy Awards and Best Actress at The Golden Globes award.  It also took the Oscar for Best Original Score.  The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox and helped keep them going for many years.  Unfortunately, the studio would eventually get into financial difficulty again and would be sold to The Disney Studio in 2019.

As a boy I remember being delighted by the story of the nun that becomes governess to 7 motherless children.  You couldn’t help but wonder at romping thru Salzburg, it’s mountain and meadows while singing.  The movie was a delight to both the ear and the eyes despite what age you are.

I don’t remember when I found out that Maria, Captain Von Trapp, and the children were actual people.  Actual living people.  It may have been when Julie Andrews had her own variety show on television and she had as a guest Maria Von Trapp.  I remember the interview vaguely I know you can see some of it on YouTube.  One thing I remember is Maria saying she caused much more trouble in the abbey than the movie portrayed.

This made me curious and I found in one of frequent trips to the bookstore the book that The Sound of Music was based on…The Story of The Trapp Family Singers.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was first published in 1949.  It is a memoir of the Von Trapp family from Maria’s point of view and is told in the first person.  Maria, I think was surprised at herself for writing this book.  At least that’s the feeling you get if your read the introduction.

The book itself is different in many ways from what would become The Sound of Music.  For instance, though Maria did upset the abbey quite a bit as a postulant that was not the reason she was sent to The Trapp’s.  She had been suffering from severe headaches and it was thought that fresh air and regular exercise would be of help to her.  When the need for a teacher for The Captain’s youngest daughter, who was also named Maria, reached Mother Superior, she felt this a good opportunity for Maria to get her health back before permanently entering the abbey.

So Maria was sent to the Von Trapp’s

It was Maria’s personality that won the other children to her.  Their were other governesses and staff in the house but the children liked Maria and yes eventually because Maria loved to sing especially folk music she taught the children how to sing together and in harmony.

The Captain too was not the ogre he is presented as in the film.  He is a man that grieved for his wife and so ran a strict household, but the children didn’t want for anything that they knew of and he loved them, frequently coming home with gifts after his absences.

The family had all become recent converts to Catholicism.  Maria opened whole new worlds of worship of God for the family.  Two chapters in the book An Austrian Christmas and Feasts in a Family go into great detail about this.  I read these two chapters each year one at Christmas and one at Easter because Feasts in a Family goes deeply in to how Easter was celebrated prior to Vatican II, the Christmas chapter in advent is self explanatory.

The first half the book  in many ways resembles The Sound of Music.  The Captain is engaged to an Austrian Noble Woman and he does break it off when he realizes he is in love with Maria.  Many things happen between his marriage and his ultimate decision to flee Austria.  Many things and many years pass.  The couple married in 1927 and left Austria in 1938.

In the years between the marriage and the departure The Captain’s children grew up.  Rupert, the oldest son was a practicing physician and was also offered a place in The Third Reich along with his father.  The Captain also lost almost his entire fortune.  He had the money in a bank but that bank went under.  The Family still had the estate but they began renting rooms out in order to secure more income.

It was during this time that they were heard singing by Lotte Lenya a popular vocalist at the time.  It was She who encouraged them to go professional and they did and were a huge success.  The Captain did not sing with his family.  He found the whole thing very painful to endure.  He would eventually get used to it as he had no choice  And ultimately because they had some international contracts being offered to them to sing outside Austria they were able to flee the country when both father and son were offered place’s in Hitler’s regime.

Before leaving Austria Maria would have two children of her own Eleanor and Rosemarie.  She would have a third in The United States as she was pregnant with her youngest Johannes when they left.

The second half of the book is about their adventures in America.  Settling first outside Philadelphia, where Johannes was born and their early concert tours.  Ultimately they found a place in Vermont that reminded them of the Austria they left behind and they settled in Stowe before the America got involved in WWII.

First they farmed the land and made their own branded maple syrup.  Eventually they would buy an army barracks that was abandoned and they ran family music camps so that families could learn to sing together.  

When the war started the two Von Trapp boys, now young men, served in the U.S. military.  The family was successful in The United States and they gave back.  Thankfully both boys came home.

The Captain died in 1947 at the age of 67.  Maria was 22 when she married him and 42 when he passed away.  In 1949 her book was published and it gained the interest of a German film maker who made dramatic film called The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers.  Maria sold the rights to her book for 200 dollars.  They were the complete rights and so it was the German film company who owned the rights when Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to make a stage musical about the family. Maria and the family made very little money from the Sound of Music.  I think signing her rights away for 200 dollars was one of her biggest regrets.  She was given a certain amount from the film and even had a few seconds of a scene In the movie.  Ultimately that scene was cut, but you can glimpse Maria crossing the square during the Do Re Me Montage.  But you must look very carefully.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959.  It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Georg Von Trapp.  It would run for four years on Broadway closing in 1963 and would be perennially done by schools, touring companies, community theaters, and Broadway revivals.  It would star many well known actresses such as Florence Henderson who took over for Mary Martin, Shirley Jones, Maria Osmond, Debbie Boone and the list could go on.  There are some lovely pictures online of the real Maria posing with the actresses who portrayed her.

But Maria’s work and her story do not end with The Sound of Music.  It was my first year of college, probably the spring of 1980, I was walking through the stores in downtown Mansfield PA when I spotted a book by Maria Von Trapp called Yesterday Today and Forever.  I bought it and devoured it.  The book was a sort of Life of Christ from a family’s point of view.  It was also a guide on how to bring Jesus into your own life.  Several years later I would find that book as a hard cover at our local library book sale.  I got it for a dime and opened it to find Maria’s signature.

Maria would go on and write a separate book about Our Lord titled When King was Carpenter.  This book was about the hidden years of Jesus, between his being found in the Temple at age 12 and his baptism by John. The book gives the details of how people lived in Judea at the time of Jesus.  Both books are marvelous treasures for a Christian and I recommend you reading them.  You feel as though Maria and her family really loved The Lord and it comes out in these books.  If you are lucky you may come across a book titled Let Me Tell You About My Savior this book is Yesterday Today and Forever and When King Was Carpenter in one volume.

Maria would write another book on her family called A Family on Wheels.  This book is about their adventures giving concerts across the United States.  It’s a fun book.  A lighthearted look at artists on the road.

In 1972 Maria would publish her last book, Maria My Own Story.  This book is a much more intimate look at the woman separate from her family.  It is her faith journey from a family of non-believers to becoming a novice in a convent.  There are many surprises in the book as well.  Maria felt in 1927 that she was more marrying the children than their father.  The fact is she brought the marriage proposal to Mother Superior and the nuns met and decided for Maria that she would accept.  Maria wasn’t expecting the marriage to be intimate.  She loved the children when she married the father but she grew to love the father as well.

Maria’s story has become part of my own faith story.  I and my housemate do an advent wreath and Advent devotionals during the time leading up to Christmas because of her books.  Maria made Jesus accessible to me.  Especially in the book Yesterday Today and Forever.  She helped me realize that Jesus can be an intimate part of my life if I choose to get to know him better.  And these books help you get to know the real Jesus not the untouchable Christ that some churches portray him as being.

The songs in The Sound of Music give me great strength to do what I need to do.  Climb Every Mountain is a hymn in some churches.  And My Favorite Things brings Paul’s Letter to The Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8 to life.  You can look that up on your own and then compare the instruction to the lyrics.  It is my go-to song when I am feeling very low.

Maria’s life, and her faith have brought much encouragement to me.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.  I felt that passing.  It was like a good friend had died.  But she left a legacy for us all to find if we dare look for it and listen for the sound of music.