I used to dread the season of Lent when I was a child. Just saying the word “Lent” in my home meant no television, no after-school snack and definitely no dessert with dinner. Lent also meant getting up extra early every morning so we could get our chores done on our dairy farm before my mother would practically drag me and my three siblings to Mass every day before school. As a product of public school education in a predominantly Protestant community, Ash Wednesday prompted questions and teasing from my peers about having a dirty face, while sleeping over at a friend’s house on Friday night was unheard of because we might unintentionally eat a cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza instead of tuna salad or grilled cheese sandwiches. Besides, every Friday night in Lent my parents would load all of us kids into the family station wagon and head off to church for confessions and Stations of the Cross. There was a mood of sadness and despair that fell over my Catholic household – a mood which seemed to match the dullness of the outside weather as winter tried to hold on and spring was reluctant to bloom.
My attitude toward this season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving stayed with me until I entered a religious community when I was in my mid-20s. That year, on the First Sunday of Lent, I heard a homily by an elderly Benedictine monk, Fr. Bede, that I will never forget. His message was simple but profound: “There is more to Lent than meets the eye.” Each year, as I meditate on the prayers and scriptures for Masses during Lent, I continue to see how Fr. Bede was right. There is more to this season than meets the eye.
On Wednesday, March 2, the Church will embark on our annual, six-week long retreat. While the season is penitential in nature, this annual spiritual renewal helps us to prepare for the celebration of our most fundamental belief: the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Lent, on its own, has no meaning; rather, it prepares us for Easter and new life. Three themes hold the six weeks together: 1) the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection; 2) the implications of this mystery for those preparing for baptism; and 3) a spiritual renewal of faith and conversion for those who are already baptized.
Origin of the Season
The season of Lent is closely associated with the transition from winter to spring. In fact, the word “lent” originated from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, lencten, which describes the lengthening of daylight after the winter solstice. In the second century, Christians fasted for one or two days in preparation for Easter. This was a natural thing to do in preparation for the anniversary of the Lord’s resurrection when his final return was expected. By the third century, this fast was extended to a week; however, the first appearance of Lent in its present duration was in Egypt in the late third century, when it was more a period of conscious imitation of Jesus’ time in the desert than it was to prepare to celebrate Easter. With the development of the catechumenate and the initiation of new Christians at the Easter Vigil, Lent was an intense time of preparation for baptism; however, as baptism of infants became normative, preparation for Holy Thursday’s reconciliation of penitents became the focus. From the fourth century on, Lent was a time of preparation for baptism and public penitence for the whole of the faithful, a spirituality which was rooted in the experience of Jesus in his 40 days in the desert following his own baptism in the Jordan.
A Season of Penance and Renewal
What I was unable to see as a child was that Lent was more than sorrow for our sins. By the silence of the joyous Glory to God and Alleluia, the absence of live plants, the restraint of music and the penitential color of violet worn by the priest, the Lenten atmosphere is indeed more somber; however, the readings and prayers of the Sunday liturgies help us renew our relationship with Jesus so that at Easter, we can renew our promises of baptism.
In the Gospels, we hear how Jesus is triumphant over Satan, and we stand witness with Peter, James and John as Jesus is transfigured in all his glory. We encounter the gardener who wants to cut down a fig tree that, for three years, hasn’t produced any fruit, but decides to give it another year to try again. We listen to the story of the father who rejoices at the return of his son, who wasted away his family’s inheritance. Then, we watch as a woman caught in adultery, an act punishable by death, is spared when Jesus says that the one “who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
The Collects for Sunday Mass ask God to help us “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ” by nourishing us with his word and giving us remedies for our sins in fasting, prayer and almsgiving. These beautiful prayers implore God to reconcile the human race to himself by filling us with an eagerness for charity for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I think I can safely say that we all can identify with times in our lives when we haven’t been fruitful in our efforts to follow Christ, or that we’ve hurt someone we love and been forgiven more than we deserve. We’ve all made mistakes and been offered forgiveness and mercy – this is all part of being human. All this (and more) is what we find in our liturgies of Lent. Truly, there’s more to Lent than what meets the eye. May we see with eyes of faith, not sadness or despair, God’s abundant love, mercy and forgiveness.