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At Masses next Sunday it should 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. Ash Wednesday this week marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter.
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. Another way of coming up with 40 days is to include only the days from the first Sunday of Lent until Holy Thursday and consider the four days from Ash Wednesday to the following Saturday to be a solemn prelude to Lent and not part of the season itself.
But 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.
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 (25th 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.
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 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, the oils (especially the chrism) can be moved from the ambry, sacred images may be removed. 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".