February 20, 2009


Deep with spiritual meaning, Lent is a season of penance

Lent, the penitential season before Good Friday and Easter, begins next Wednesday. We encourage our readers to try to make this a particularly holy season.

The Church’s fast and abstinence rules during Lent are on page 2 of this issue. These should, though, be considered the absolute minimum when it comes to penance.

Christians have observed Lent from the earliest days of the Church, almost always much more vigorously than we do today. In some places, all animal products, including eggs, milk and cheese, were strictly forbidden throughout Lent. At times, Christians ate only one meal each day, while others fasted from all food until 3 p.m.

In the first half of the 20th century, throughout Lent, Catholics ate only one full meal a day, with two smaller meals permitted to keep up strength—the same as the regulations for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday today.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and technically ends with the evening Mass on Holy Thursday. It’s calculated as 40 days, representing the time that Jesus spent in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan (Mt 4:1-2, Mk 1:12-13, Lk 4:1-2).

We shouldn’t be too precise, though, in calculating those 40 days. In order to get 40 days, the six Sundays of Lent are not counted. But that gives us only 38 days. You can reach the magic number of 40 by including Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The number 40 has many biblical references: the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God (Ex 24:18); the 40 days and nights that Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8); God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights in the days of Noah (Gn 7:4); the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years; God gave the city of Ninevah 40 days to repent (Jon 3:4).

It was also the traditional belief that Jesus was in the tomb after his crucifixion for 40 hours. The early Christians, therefore, fasted for 40 hours before Easter.

Lent was formerly known by the Latin term “quadragesima,” which in turn was the translation of the Greek “tessarakoste,” meaning the “40th day” before Easter. By the Middle Ages, though, the word “Lent” came into usage in English-speaking countries. It initially simply meant “spring,” and it derived from the Germanic root for “long” because in the spring the days visibly lengthen.

Next Wednesday, most Catholics, and some Protestants, will receive ashes on their foreheads. We will be reminded that, as God said to Adam, “You are dust and unto dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). We are reminded of our mortality at the beginning of Lent, but at the end of Lent we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the promise of our immortality.

Ashes, as a sign of penitence, have their roots in the Old Testament. The king of Ninevah, for example, repented by sitting in the ashes (Jon 3:6) and Esther “covered her head with dirt and ashes” before approaching King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people (Est 4C:13).

We have mentioned fasting, but it is only one of the three penitential practices that the Church recommends for Lent. Perhaps it’s not even the most important. Spending more time in prayer (justice toward God) would be a greater goal. And almsgiving (justice toward our neighbor) is another traditional Lenten practice. Fasting can be thought of as justice toward ourselves.

Justice toward ourselves, though, can also take the form of giving up some of our small vices. Perhaps it’s not as common as it once was (unfortunately), but Catholics used to ask each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

What’s wrong with giving up desserts for Lent even if part of the motivation is to lose weight? Or what’s wrong with giving up movies—especially considering the content of so many movies these days? We can all examine our consciences to come up with things we can try to give up for Lent.

Our parishes will also make it possible to do more positive things, too, with prayer services of various kinds and the Lenten penance services. And there are some special collections during Lent to help you with almsgiving.

—John F. Fink

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