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Lent: Nature and Meaning
Feb 21, 1999
Even if you hadn’t already been aware of the fact, it would soon have become obvious at mass today that we have moved to a new season of the church’s liturgical calendar.
Purple vestments and hangings have replaced the green of ordinary time, the “Gloria” is omitted, and there are no joyful “Alleluias” to greet the gospel. The setting is stark, the music restrained. It is the season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday evening.
What memories does Lent evoke for you? Many associate it with acts of self-denial – giving up chocolate or alcohol for 40 days, only to discover with dismay that Lent in fact lasts 46 days! What is the purpose of these practices and how did they begin?
In the early Church Easter was the time for those wanting to become Christians to be received into the community. In preparation for baptism these people, call “catechumens”, fasted for two days beforehand. By the fourth century, this fast had been lengthened to 40 days and became a period of preparation for Easter for all Christians.
Augustine explained that the authority of the forty days comes from Christ’s forty days in the desert – the subject of today’s gospel reading – and from the fasts of Moses and Elias. There has been some variation in counting the 40 days over history. Around the fifth century it became established as the period of 40 days before Holy Thursday, not counting Sundays which are never days of fasting. At this time it was also given the name Lent, meaning “spring”, the season closely associated with this period in the northern hemisphere. Gradually the distribution of ashes became part of the ritual of the first day of the season – Ash Wednesday.
As well as the time for catechumens to make their final preparations for initiation, Lent was a period of preparation for penitents who would be reconciled with the Christian community on Holy Thursday. Other members of the church journeyed with the catechumens and penitents during these 40 days through fasting, alms giving and prayer.
When the catechumenate collapsed, Lent lost its baptismal roots and became associated almost exclusively with penance. Hence the traditional acts of self-denial.
Vatican II restored the baptismal focus of this season. Paragraph 109 of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” describes Lent as being “marked by two themes, the baptismal and penitential” and calls for “more use to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy”.
On this first Sunday of Lent, many parishes will have celebrated the Rite of Election or Enrolment of Names for those embarking on the final stage of preparation to join the Catholic Church at Easter.
During Lent we are all on a journey as we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery at the Easter Triduum and continue that celebration during the 50 days of the joyful Easter season.