By GEOFFREY HUMPH RYS
THE forty-day period of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, is an ancient custom of the Catholic Church to commemorate the miraculous abstinence of Our Lord when under temptation. Lent is a Teutonic word and is derived from lenglen-tide, meaning the time of the lengthening of the day, or spring season. Since Anglo-Saxon times, however, it has been used in this country as the more significant Latin term, Quadragesima. meaning the " Forty Days." or to be more exact, the " Fortieth Day."
As early as the fifth century the priests spread the belief that the 40 days' fast was of Apostolic origin. At one time, however, the Lenten period began on what is now known as the first Sunday in Lent. As Sundays were not regarded as fasting days, Pope Gregory decreed that this only left 36 days of fasting until Easter Day. Because of this His Holiness pronounced that the Lenten period should start four days earlier, namely, on the day which has since been known as Ash Wednesday.
IN early days. the priest took a
quantity of ashes, blessed them and sprinkled them with holy water. The people then approached in sackcloth, and the priest took up some of the ashes on the ends of his fingers, and made the Sign of the Cross on the worshipper's head. The ashes commonly used were made of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.
After the Reformation many of the ancient customs survived. A thin, scarecrow-like figure was set Lip and shied at with sticks. The figure was known as Jack-a-Lent, and many references to it can be found in old literature.
Another ancient custom was Cast aside after an incident during the reign of George I. It was then customary for a man known as the King's Cockcrower to crow the hours' each night during the period of Lent. This originated from Peter's three times denying Our Lord before the cock crowed.
On the first Ash Wednesday after the accession of George 1, his son, the Prince of Wales, was dining alone at St. James's Palace. At 10 o'clock, the Cockcrower, dressed in the robes and chain of his office, entered the dining room and crowed like a cock ten times.
The Prince was a halting speaker who had not mastered the English language. He mistook the Cockcrower's duty as a mockery of his imperfect speech and immediately drew his sword on him.
A German-speaking equerry hastily intervened and explained the man's duty. The Prince sheathed his sword hut reported the incident to his royal father, who ordered that from then onward the custom would no longer be observed.