In an article about Lent for last year’s Catholic Herald, I admitted that as a child I used to dread Lent. Just saying the word “Lent” in my home meant no television, no after-school snack, and getting up early so we could get our chores done on the dairy farm so my mother could bring me and my three siblings to Mass every day before school. And as a product of public school education in a mostly Protestant part of Minnesota, Ash Wednesday always prompted teasing from my peers about having a “dirty forehead.” It’s funny how the experiences we have as children stick with us well into adulthood.
My childhood experience of Lent continued to form my personal spirituality of the season well into my mid-20s, when I really became aware of the liturgical traditions of the season, and most importantly, the reason behind them. Therefore, to help us all better understand and appreciate the significance of and reasoning behind the liturgical customs of Lent, here’s a summary — rather, a crash course — of the liturgy and Lent.
Lent is a 40-day liturgical season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Since the season is closely associated with the transition from winter to spring in the northern hemisphere, the word “lent” can actually be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” meaning “springtime.”
Just as we are called to fast and abstain from certain foods in Lent in a spirit of penance and self-discipline, so too in the liturgy we “give up,” for a time, some of the more joyful and glorious element of the Mass. One of the most notable things we give up is the Gloria — that joyous hymn that the angels sang the night of our Savior’s birth — which we sing every Sunday outside of Advent and Lent, as well as every feast day and Holy Day of Obligation.
We also give up the singing of the Alleluia, an acclamation derived from a Hebrew expression of praise to God. We sing Alleluia to thank and glorify God. During Lent, however, our focus is on the spiritual journey of Old Testament Israel toward the coming of Christ and the salvation of humankind through his death on the cross and the resurrection on Easter Sunday. This puts us on a spiritual journey toward the second coming of Christ, and in order to emphasize the penitential nature of that journey and the posture and attitude we must cultivate, we remove the Alleluia, and the Gloria, from the Mass.
In terms of other music during the season of Lent, the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” tells us that the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to the extent that it supports the singing of the assembly. Again, it’s a sort of fasting from the feasting we normally do during more joyful seasons; however, this principal also allows us to focus more intently on the sung prayer of the assembly.
Another change you might notice about the liturgy during Lent is that the color of vestments changes from the green the priest has been wearing during Ordinary Time, to violet, which is worn during penitential liturgies and seasons. Violet, or purple, is rich in symbolism and was originally associated with royalty because it was the most expensive color to dye. It was used as an act of ridicule and scorn during our Lord’s Passion when Pontius Pilate had a purple robe placed on Jesus and began to mock him, “King of the Jews.” Because of that, violet symbolizes pain, suffering, mourning and penitence.
For me, one of the most obvious changes to the liturgy during Lent is in the decoration of our churches. Typically, live plants or fresh flowers adorn the sanctuary, if not the whole church. These are integral elements of the liturgy because they are visible signs that express joy and signify new life. During the season of Lent, however, the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” actually forbids fresh flowers. The idea here is that Lent is a time to focus on Christ and his sacrifice, and that means only those elements necessary for the Eucharistic celebration should be in the sanctuary and on the altar. Like the fasting from musical elements during Lent, we also fast from the fresh flowers. Yet, because all of Christian liturgy is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery, there are a few times when exceptions are made, particularly the Fourth Sunday of Lent — “Laetare” Sunday — and feasts and solemnities which occur during Lent, particularly the Solemnities of St. Joseph (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25).
In recent years, more and more parishes in the United States have veiled their crosses and statues during the latter part of the season. Beginning on the fifth Sunday of Lent, but not before, the Roman Missal permits dioceses of the United States the practice of covering crosses, statues and images of saints. This custom helps us during these last days of the season to concentrate on Christ’s work of redemption. Crosses remain covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.
Liturgical seasons each have their own characteristics, and Lent is a season which stands out in some very unique ways. Let us embrace these practices to help us draw closer to the sacred mysteries as we turn away from sin and prepare for the great celebration of Easter.