February 15, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The penitential season of Lent

John F. FinkThis Wednesday, Feb. 13, many people walked around with smudges on their foreheads. They were Catholics or other Christians who had ashes applied to their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a popular feast day for Catholics. It seems that more Catholics go to Mass and receive ashes that day than attend Mass on some holy days of obligation. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Since Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, the people are reminded by the ashes that are applied to their foreheads that they are going to die someday and that it is time for them to do penance for their sins.

The season of Lent is a time for fasting, special prayers, and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. It lasts officially from Ash Wednesday until the beginning of the evening Mass on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. The name “Lent” comes from the Middle English lenten and Anglo-Saxon lencten, meaning spring.

During the first three centuries, the pre-Easter fast lasted only two or three days. However, by the Council of Nicaea in 325, it was 40 days. This number was selected in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the desert before his public ministry (Mt 4:2, Mk 12:13, Lk 4:2). Jesus’ fast, in turn, recalled the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert “so as to test you by affliction, and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments” (Dt 8:2).

Trying to arrive at exactly 40 days, though, has been difficult. In some Eastern churches, Christians fasted five days per week for seven weeks, but that was only 35 days. In Jerusalem in the fourth century, the fast was five days for eight weeks.

But in the West, the practice was to fast for six days per week (excluding Sundays) for six weeks, with Lent ending on Holy Saturday. Then, to make 40 days, the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday were added. Today, with Lent ending on Holy Thursday and excluding the Sundays, there are 38 days.

The number of days became irrelevant when Catholics were no longer obliged to fast during all the days of Lent, as we did when many of us were young. Today Catholics are obliged to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—and Good Friday is no longer part of Lent but part of the Holy Week Triduum.

Fasting is no longer as difficult as it once was. It means eating only one full meal, but two light meals are permitted. In addition, we are supposed to abstain from meat during all the Fridays of Lent, just as formerly we were obliged to abstain from meat every Friday.

Today, though, the emphasis is not on fasting as much as it is on the other two aspects of Lent—prayers and almsgiving. Every Catholic church has special services during Lent and special collections are taken up for some of the national and international charitable activities of the Church. †

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