Understanding Lent

At Masses today it will be clear to everyone that we have moved into a new season of the Church’s liturgical year.  There will be no Glory to God in the introductory rites, no joyful Alleluias to greet the Gospel, and purple vestments and hangings will be used instead of the green of Ordinary Time. It is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter. 

The number 40 has symbolic rather than literal meaning here. It is based on Christ's 40 days in the desert and on the fasts of Moses and Elias, so exact reckoning is not important. 

Lent falls very early this year, coming after just five weeks of Ordinary Time following the season of Christmas.

One way of understanding the structure of Lent is this:

The first four weeks take their direction from the readings, penitential rites and the rites related to the Catechumenate (RCIA).
On the fifth Sunday of Lent (17th March this year) the focus shifts to Christ's passion.
Holy Week runs from Passion/Palm Sunday until the beginning of the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.
The Triduum (Latin for "three days") refers to the period from the evening of Holy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday.

The tone of Lenten liturgies is one of restraint and simplicity.  An uncluttered and austere worship space supports this: flowers are used sparingly, vestments are plain and decorations are understated, and the oils (especially the chrism) can be moved from the ambry.  Music is also kept to a minimum with instruments used only to accompany the singing of the assembly. 

There has been a shift in our understanding of the nature of Lent since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  This movement has taken us from a private to a more public dimension of our faith with an emphasis on the social aspects of fasting, alms giving and prayer.  

There has been a shift from personal penance to communal reconciliation with people seeking to speak the truth of pain, fear and sin within a community of authentic forgiveness.  This change reflects one of the decrees laid down in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: "During Lent penance should be not only inward and individual but outward and social" (CSL 110). 

Finally, we have moved from an emphasis on individual penance to conversion of life as is so strikingly seen in those preparing to become members of the community at the Easter Vigil. 

On this first Sunday of Lent, those catechumens (people who are not already baptised) who will be initiated into the Church at the Easter Vigil celebrate the rite of Election or Enrolment of Names. This afternoon, catechumens in dioceses in all parts of Australia and around the world will gather in their cathedral churches with godparents, sponsors, families and friends, parish clergy and RCIA teams to celebrate this special liturgy under the leadership of the bishop.  

We pray for all those who today take the next step on their journey to initiation at the Easter ceremonies and for those who are journeying with them. 

Elizabeth Harrington