The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the days of the season of Lent “are intense moments of the church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” That is a good summation of a very important season of the church year.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22 this year) and concludes with the Sacred Triduum that leads to Easter Sunday. Most Catholics know basic things about Lent: they know it is a season that marks a time to repent and turn back to God, they know it’s the season that leads up to holy week and Christ’s passion, and they know about some of the Church disciplines during Lent, such as no meat on Fridays. These are the basic elements of the season, but there is much more to know about Lent and its history.
Lent – What kind of name is that?
If you don’t think the season name “Lent” sounds like a Latin term, you are correct. Lent is a uniquely English word. It’s from the Old English word “Lencten,” meaning March (or spring). This is because March or springtime is when the season of Lent comes around; it may start in the winter but it always finishes in spring. Moreover, the month of March almost always has the season of Lent covering it completely. In almost all romance languages the name for this season of
Lent finds its origin in the Latin term “Quadragesima,” or “the 40 days” which refers to the length of the season.
Moonlight on Lent
Lent, unlike Christmas, is based upon the movement of days and seasons on a lunar calendar. The lunar calendar is used to determine the date of Easter. It was the calendar used by the people in Israel in the time of Christ. Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church on the first Sunday after the first full moon (hence, lunar calendar) following the first day of spring. Thus, Easter moves annually depending on the date of that first full moon of spring. What does this have to do with Lent? Well, when Easter moves, so does the start of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is about 40 days before Easter. In addition to Ash Wednesday, other church holy days are affected by the lunar-calendar basis of Easter, among them: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost, Ascension, Corpus Christi, and Trinity Sunday. These are all deemed “movable feasts.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the church’s season of Lent — 40 days of fasting, repentance and prayer. On Ash Wednesday, the faithful, at Mass or at a service of the Word, present themselves to receive ashes. At Masses, following the homily, ashes are blessed and then applied to faithful in the form of a cross on their foreheads. These ashes are derived from burning the blessed palm branches used on Palm Sunday during the previous year.
While Ash Wednesday is not a solemnity (high holy day) or a holy day of obligation, more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year, except for Christmas and Easter. Why? Because even somewhat lapsed Catholics have in their hard-wiring the need to repent, and the desire set their life right with God and his church.
The name Ash Wednesday finds it roots in the Latin term “Dies Cinerum” (found in the Latin text of the Roman Missal) that means, “Day of Ashes” or “Day of Cinders.” It is asserted that this practice of receiving ashes was begun some 15 centuries ago by Pope Gregory the Great.
In Old Testament times wearing ashes had two key symbolisms. When worn on a person’s face, ashes were a sign of man’s humility and mortality and also a sign of one’s repentance for sins. Thus, when a person receives ashes on Ash Wednesday, they are administered in a visible place (the forehead) in the form of a cross; as they are administered, the priest (or deacon or extraordinary minister) commonly says the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This admonition serves to remind us of our mortality, our need for humility and the truth that one day we will, each of us, have to stand before God to answer for our lives. Thus, it is time to repent.
So, Ash Wednesday rightly begins our season of repentance. To remind us of this, Ash Wednesday is designated as a day of both fast and abstinence from meat. This means the faithful are generally prescribed to engage in a day of fast (only one full meal, two much smaller meals) and abstinence (no consumption of meat).
The Length of Lent
The season of Lent is 40 days long — stretching from Ash Wednesday to the Sacred Triduum that leads to Easter. Two questions often asked about this: “Why 40 days?” and “Why is it that if I count the days on my calendar, Lent seems to come out to more than 40 days – what’s up with that?”
Why 40 days? There was an awful movie a few years back called “The Number 23,” in which the protagonist, played by Jim Carrey, notices the number 23 appearing over and over again in his life. He develops the opinion that the number’s recurrence must carry some significance in his life.
In the Scriptures, the number 40 is our version of the number 23. It’s a number that recurs frequently in the Old and New Testament in significant passages. For example in Genesis, in the story of Noah’s ark it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; in Exodus, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years making their way to the Promised Land; also in Exodus, Moses stayed on the Mountain of God for 40 days; in the first book of Kings, Elijah traveled 40 days before he reached the cave where he had his vision; and in the Gospels, notably in Matthew, Jesus, just before embarking on his ministry, spent 40 days in the wilderness praying, fasting and doing battle with the temptations of the devil. There are many other occurrences of that number in Scripture. The number 40 carries profound meaning in our faith.
To steal some words from Mass, it is “right and just” for us to imitate Christ’s 40 days in the desert with a 40-day season of prayer, repentance and fasting. As members of his faithful people, we seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, imitating his example, with a 40-day period that prepares us to celebrate his ministry’s key sacrificial and salvific moments: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Lent is that 40-day preparation period for us. It is a penitential period in which we reflect on our relationship with Christ and draw closer to him.
Why it is that if one counts the days from Ash Wednesday to the Sacred Triduum it equals more than 40 days? This is because the Sundays of Lent are excluded from being counted as days of Lent. This is not just a clever fix to get the numbers to fit. Rather, one has to understand that Sundays are days when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Sunday is the day on which Christ arose, making it an inappropriate day for anyone to fast and lament his sins. Thus, there are 40 days of repentance and fasting — and Sundays do not count into that equation.
Symbols lent to Lent
In Lent, the liturgical color (the color of a priest’s vestment at Mass, for example) changes from green (for Ordinary Time) to the penitential color of violet. Likewise, the sanctuary of the church will be made to look sparse during this season. So, rather than the decorations of the Christmas season, or even the flowers displayed during Easter or ordinary time, Lent is a time for the sanctuary to have a spare or somewhat bare tone to it. Other liturgical signs of the season are ashes on Ash Wednesday, and palm branches on Palm Sunday. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the use of the color rose optionally replacing violet on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday. The term laetare comes from the first words of the Latin text of the entrance antiphon of that day, “Laetare Jerusalem” (“rejoice Jerusalem”). This is the Sunday when Lent is more than halfway completed, a day of hope with Easter being at last within sight.
Fast: The Disciplines of Lent
Every Friday in Lent is a day of abstinence from meat. It’s Friday on which we commemorate Christ’s death for our sins. To commemorate Christ’s one perfect sacrifice, we abstain from eating meat. This is a discipline of the church that we, as CatholicS, are called to observe.
Why do we do this? One way of reflecting on this sacrifice is this: Think of it in the context that the animals that we commonly get meat from were traditionally the ones that were offered in sacrifice by the priests in ancient Judaism in the temple. With Christ’s sacrifice, animal sacrifices no longer were necessary. Abstaining from meat is one way, within church discipline, that we can share in and recognize Christ’s perfect sacrifice which did away with sacrifices required under the Old Covenant. Further, the church teaches that fasting and abstinence “prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (CCC 2043).
Good Friday (like Ash Wednesday) is not only a day of abstinence from meat, but also a full day of fast. These two days serve as bookends to the self-denying practices of this holy season. This fast is in place to get our minds away from food and earthly desires so that we may focus our mind on Christ and his salvific act, and in turn our faithfulness to God and his church. Or maybe in simpler terms it is a season when we are called to reflect on the great sacrifice of what Christ did for us, and then ask ourselves if we are living lives that honor that great sacrifice. This is exactly what Lent calls us to do in our spirit of fasting, prayer and repentance.
This primer on Lent is not all-inclusive, but is meant to provide a flavor of the history and development of a season that calls us to repent and turn back to God. During this season live your faith more fully by prayer, repentance and fasting. If you live your faith in this manner, Lent will be a well-spent season that brings you closer to God and his one holy church.
Father James Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.