Monday, February 14, 2005

The Season of Lent

Lent is the Old English word for spring. In almost all other languages, Lent's name is a derivative of the Latin term quadragesima or "the forty days." 40 is the traditional number of days for discipline, devotion, and preparation. Just think of Moses on the mountain, Elijah on his travels to the cave of visions, Nineveh’s deadline to repent, and most significantly, Jesus' time in the wilderness praying, fasting, and experiencing the temptation that humanity faces:

For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning. (Heb. 4:15)

By the solemn forty days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. “To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self-emptying is to be more deeply present to one’s contemporaries, in the heart of Christ. For those who are on this narrower path encourage their brethren by their example…”

Rev. Lawrence E. Mick wrote that Lent is “radically baptismal”, which is right up TCC’s alley! He said that our current 40 day observation grew out of 3 original sources; an ancient 2-day paschal fast before Easter, the “Catechumenate” preparation for baptism of adults, and the “Order of Penitents” conversion process for baptized people who had fallen but were ready to turn away from serious sin.

As the Catechumen (those who were being prepared) went through the process, the rest of the congregation walked with them spiritually, renewing their own baptismal promises.
This idea of a second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, is at once holy and always in need of purification, and follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.”

Lent is a penitential season, and the 3 keys to penitence are prayer, fasting, and charity or almsgiving.

Fasting helps us “acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” Self-denial and acts of penance help us uproot the rule of sin in our lives, and in the world.

A common practice during Lent is to give up something we enjoy. By doing this, we discipline our wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures. When we train ourselves to resist temptations that are not sinful, we increase our ability to resist temptations that are sinful.

Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence from meat. Abstaining from meat helps us remember the needs of the poor. Some families eat simple meals such as rice and beans on Friday, and give the money that would have been used for the meal to the poor. If you give up steak but eat lobster, you’re missing the point!

We don’t hear about charity as a Lenten practice as often as the other disciplines, however, almsgiving and charity are logical acts during this season, as they are outward signs and actions that our inner conversion is real and that we take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Isaiah 58:6-7 reads:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Jesus’ call to conversion and penance does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes”, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false. Interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.

Fasting should be linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty. Connecting charitable acts with fasting activities, for example, donating food we would otherwise have eaten to the hungry, brings a particular richness and depth of understanding to our Lenten experience.

Please consider incorporating the practices of prayer, fasting, and charity into your life this Lenten season, so that you can reach new levels of spiritual breadth and preparation.

This article contains excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church ©1994 and from Lenten Customs, Baptism is the Key by Rev. Lawrence E. Mick.