Understanding Lent

A Sense of Lent
Lent is very late starting this year. The timing of Lent, of course, is linked to the date of Easter in 2000 is 23rd April – the first Sunday after the first full moon after the autumn equinox (March 22). It will be 2011 before Lent falls as late as this again. Parish liturgy committees don’t mind too much – it gives them some extra time to plan for the celebration of Lent!
Another special aspect of Lent this year is that it fits within the context of the Year of Great Jubilee. The Jubilee themes of justice, journey, jubilation, freedom, fallow and forgiveness link closely with the spirit and readings of the season.
The reform of the liturgy following Vatican II sought to stress the two-fold nature of Lent – baptismal and penitential. The General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar describes Lent this way:
Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices. (27)
This change of emphasis is seen in the text used for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return!” focuses on our sinfulness. The newer formula for this ritual action quotes the words of Jesus in Mark: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”. Here the call for repentance is balanced with an invitation to live out our baptismal promises.
The Vatican documents also make clear the nature and object of Lenten penitential practices:
“During Lent penance should be not only inward and individual, but also outward and social” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 110).
This instruction has been picked up beautifully in the words of the Lent I preface: Each year you give us this joyful seasonwhen we prepare to celebrate the paschal mysterywith mind and heart renewed.You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father,and of willing service to our neighbour.
Lest anyone think that this understanding of the penitential practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving is not in keeping with the tradition of the church, this quote from St Peter Chrysologus writing in the first half of the 5th century is instructive:
Prayer, mercy and fasting:these three are one, and they give life to each other.Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting.Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated.If you only have one of them or not all together, you have nothing.So, if you pray, fast;if you fast, show mercy;if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others.When you fast, see the fasting of others.If you hope for mercy, show mercy.If you look for kindness, show kindness.If you want to receive, give. (Office of Readings, Tuesday, 3rd Week of Lent)


Elizabeth Harrington