“At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (New American Bible, Mark 1:12-13)
What is Lent?
Lent is that season in the Church year that lasts from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. Lent is a season of penitence in preparation for the great feast of Easter.
What is Ash Wednesday? And why ashes?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. In the Roman Rite, it is a day of fast and abstinence. Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence, contrition and conversion. There are numerous passages in Scripture that attest to this powerful symbol.
What is the purpose of Lent?
As a liturgical season, Lent serves at least two purposes. One purpose of Lent is to be a preparation for the next season, the great season of Easter. A second purpose, that is associated with the first, is that Lent is a season of penitence. (That’s why the predominant color is purple, by the way.) These are the reasons we get ashes, this is why we fast and abstain and this is why many of us “give up” something for the season. These acts of penitence or mortification can be signs of our interior conversion, signs of our desire to make a positive change in our spiritual lives.
Is there any history behind Lent?
Acts of penitence or mortification for the atonement of sins have long been present in the Church. (See Luke 13:3, Matthew 3:8, 11:20, Romans 2:4, etc.) However, the first mention of a forty-day period of penitence prior to Easter seems to be at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. For a short history of Lent, try this site: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110315_1.htm.
How long does Lent last?
As mentioned above, Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening.
What about the fasting and abstinence stuff; why, what’s the purpose of that?
Fasting and abstinence are penitential practices that have a long history in Christianity (and actually predate it). Fasting is a limitation upon the amount of food one eats. Abstinence is refraining from eating meat and meat products. Here are the “official rules” as posted on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.
For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.
Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are to observe the particular law of their own sui iuris Church.
If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil as the ‘paschal fast’ to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.” (Fast & Abstinence, USCCB)
What if I’m sick, do I still have to fast and abstain?
The bishops go on to add, “Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.” (Fast & Abstinence, USCCB)
Are there any other practices that can make my Lent more rewarding and fruitful?
One phrase that can be helpful to us during Lent is: “Prayer, Alms and Fasting”.
- Try taking the season more seriously than we usually do.
And, to do that:
- Try to set aside time during the day for prayer; pray the Divine Office during the course of the day, for example. Here’s a link to the Divine Office on-line: http://divineoffice.org/liturgy-of-the-hours/
- Attempt to perform some actions that have a spiritual dimension. Perform the Stations of the Cross, for example, spend time in Eucharistic Adoration, if possible, or attend daily Mass.
- Try doing some daily spiritual or Scripture reading during Lent. Read from the Church fathers or Church doctors, for example. Here’s a link to some of their writings: http://www.studylight.org/history/early-church-fathers/
- Attend a Scripture class that your parish may offer.
- Participate in CRS Rice Bowl. Here’s a link to their site: http://www.crsricebowl.org/about/
- Give up a bad habit, save the money usually spent on it and donate that money to a charity.
- Donate some of your time to a charitable organization during the season.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday Press, 1997.
Fast & Abstinence. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2014. Web. 21 Dec. 2014. <http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/catholic-information-on-lenten-fast-and-abstinence.cfm >.
The New American Bible. The Vatican, 06 Nov. 2002. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM>
Thinking Faith, nd. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. < http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110315_1.htm>