The Length, Structure and Meaning of Lent

At Masses this Sunday it should be clear to everyone that some changes have been made since last week - no "Gloria" in the introductory rites, no joyful "Alleluias" to greet the Gospel, and purple vestments and hangings instead of the green of ordinary time.
The season of Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter, has begun. There is some confusion about how the 40 days are calculated. Some people count the days from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday and subtract the six Sundays to come up with 40. However, Lent officially ends on the evening of Holy Thursday and there are 44 days from Ash Wednesday until then. In fact the "40 days" of Lent are calculated from the first Sunday of Lent until Holy Thursday. The four days from Ash Wednesday to the following Saturday are considered to be a solemn prelude to Lent and not part of the season itself.
But why 40 anyway? Augustine explained that it is based on Christ's 40 days in the desert (as heard in today's gospel) and on the fasts of Moses and Elias.
One way of understanding the shape of Lent is this:
· The first four weeks take their direction from the readings, penitential rites and the rites related to the RCIA.
· On the fifth Sunday of Lent (1st April 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.

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. 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.

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).

The ritual pattern of Lent is one of restraint and simplicity. A simple and austere worship space supports this: flowers are used sparingly, vestments and decorations are marked by plainness and simplicity, the oils (especially the chrism) can be moved from the ambry, sacred images may be removed or covered. Music is also kept to a minimum with instruments used only to accompany the singing of the assembly.

The Preface of Lent I reminds us that the purpose of Lent is to help us "celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed".


Elizabeth Harrington