Liturgically we do not usually associate the color green with Lent. It is the color that we use during ‘Ordinary Time’ because it is the color of greenery and the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope is one of those perennial needs of our existence. I often thought of the purple of Lent (which is a heightened reddish tone as opposed to the purple of Advent which tends more to the blue Marian part of the spectrum) as reminiscent of a wound. And so this shade of purple is very fitting as we move closer to the bloody red of the Passion. But Lent has another and very important substratum spiritually if not liturgically. Contrary to the negative tone Lent often evokes because of the needed sacrifices that we make, I look at Lent as a time that goes with the beginnings of Springtime and, of course, the coming of Easter.
The very word ‘Lent’ does not come from Latin. It comes from the German word “Lenz” which, you guessed it, is the Teutonic word for spring. The romance languages use the derivative of the word for 40 as in Cuaresma (Spanish), Quaresima (Italian) and Careme (French). They emphasize the length of the season. But I think the use of the word Lent has a very wonderful symbolic value. It hooks the liturgical season with the world of nature. Lent begins in the cold winter. Leaves are bare and trees look more like the Cross – that we venerate on Good Friday. But the energy happening in the trees and under the earth is powerfully preparing for the greening of the earth. That is what we are doing during Lent as well.
During Lent we do works of fasting, prayer and generous giving so that we do our part in conquering the “old self” that died at our Baptism, the self that is selfish and self-centered and bring to birth the new spring of the self-remade in Christ as Jesus presents us to the Father as a Sacrificial offering. But it has to be better than a self-help escape on our part. The development of our spiritual self must be primary. Fasting and dieting are two different endeavors. We fast not to lose weight but to do without something so that we learn how to discipline our selfish nature. It is about the choice of the higher reality in giving up some legitimate good (like food).
We can try to pray more to become a better person but prayer also has the dimension of leaving the self behind and being in contact with God as our primary good. Both ways of looking at prayer are valid but the more self-less is what is meant as the place for Lenten concern. Almsgiving or the virtue of sacrificial giving can also be done to make us feel better about ourselves but, while this is an excellent byproduct, our need to help others must have no other justification except that it is willed by God and, in justice, it is due to the persons who are in need.
As you can see, Lent helps us grow by aiding us to forget ourselves and move on to a love of God and others. This will indeed be ‘good for us’ but that is not why we do it. We enter into the discipline of Lent so that we may more completely follow the will of God period. The yearly celebration of Lent also tells us that there is an understandable cyclical pattern to growth in our lives. Like Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, we mature in growth on a regular basis. First comes the enthusiasm of springtime, followed by the long slow development of summer. At some point things begin to fall a little and then end up in a dry wintery spell when we marshal our forces on again as Spring begins to dawn. So we should not be discouraged when things fall apart on a regular basis. It is just part of the pattern of growth. The recurrence of this cyclical yet at the same time progressive pattern is the way of God and it is wonderful indeed. So, Lent is not a time to be discouraged with the fact that we have to strengthen areas of our lives that keep falling behind. Like the old saying, “two steps forward one step back” we are still moving forward despite our annual failures.
The yearly recurrence of Lent, therefore, makes me feel very secure and joyful because God’s mercy is everlasting!