In our culture we look for some sort of pill for every ill; something that tries to take the edge off tragedy, and make it more positive. We raise money to take dying children to Disneyland. We don’t lose soldiers in the battle against terror; we lose heroes. There seems to be a chorus of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ unwinding continually in the background.
Each year, in Lent, the ‘lengthening’ of the springtime days, the Church removes this comforting background. Visual and emotional comfort are stripped away from our liturgical environment. The predominant colour is purple; not the royal purple of Advent, but the drab of penitence. The joyful “Alleluias” and “Gloria!” are omitted from the Mass. Nothing distracts from our encounter with the prayers and scriptures which describe the nature and cost of salvation. It is the season of struggle; for us and by us, against the pervading power of sin. Indeed, the season is begun with the penitential reminder of our mortality and unworthiness on Ash Wednesday.
We are reminded to detest sin as an offence against God. We hear God’s anger, and his demand for repentance. We explore sin’s built-in presence and its social consequences. We pray for sinners, and we undertake penance for ourselves.
Lent took root in western Europe in the 4th century, growing out of a preparation for Easter, a renewal of Baptism and the reception of new believers into the Church. Christianity was growing rapidly. Small faith communities had long encircled the Mediterranean. But now the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity legal, and was using it as the unifying factor in his far-flung empire.
Growing numbers of adults were drawn to the faith, and patterns were established to admit them to the Church. All newcomers were baptised by the bishop on Easter night. The final months of preparation became the stages of Purification and of Enlightenment. Great attention was given to the deepening of individual spirituality.
All members of the Church had been through this same experience, at one time or another. And, after Baptism, everyone failed to live up to their first enthusiasm. So, the whole local Church joined the catechumens in these final stages, renewing their first commitment. Lent became fixed at a symbolic forty days*. The earth lay under the flood for forty days before new creation took hold. It took forty years for the generation of slaves to die before the freeborn could enter the promised land. Moses, Elijah and Jesus spent forty days in prayer and fasting before beginning their life’s work. Forty becomes the symbol of a transforming journey; a journey which brings a new reality out of the old.
Lent is a time for self-discipline. Traditionally, this has focussed on prayer, fasting and works of charity, covering our relationship with God, with ourself and with our neighbour. Each Christian is invited to choose a ‘penance’, to be exercised throughout the season. Year by year men and women undertake heroic sacrifice. They give up cigarettes, alcohol, TV soaps. But have they got it wrong? Lenten penance may certainly be an exercise in self-discipline. It may certainly be a form of apology to God for our sinfulness. But, like the penance undertaken after the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is meant to be a first step on the road back to spiritual recovery. Begin to do what you haven’t been doing… and continue when Lent is over.
Fr Paul Hardy
* Note by Brin - If you’ve ever bothered to check it out, you may be puzzled that there are actually more than forty days between Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, and Easter Sunday. This is because the Sundays aren’t included. Sunday is always a feast day, even when there isn’t a named Feast associated with the day. In addition, although Lent strictly ends at dusk on Holy Thursday, most of that day is included as a fasting day, as are Good Friday and Holy Saturday; so that makes forty fasting days.