(SNR) - Lent has been observed by faithful Christians from the earliest years of the Church. St. Irenaeus consulted with Pope St. Victor I about how Lenten fasting should be observed late in the second century. The Council of Nicea in 325 referred to the 40 days of Lent as well.
In his message for Lent 2010, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Each year, on the occasion of Lent, the Church invites us to a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the Gospel. “
The word “Lent” is derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word that means “spring.” In other cultures that do not rely on the English language, they have their own word for this penitent season, most typically derived from the Latin word “quadragesima,” which means “40 days.”
In the Scriptures, 40 days is the traditional number of discipline, devotion and preparation. When receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses remained on the mountain for 40 days (Exodus 24:18). In the book of Jonah, the city of Nineveh was given 40 days to repent before certain destruction (Jonah 3:4). Elijah traveled for 40 days before he reached the cave where he experienced a prophetic vision (1 Kings 19:8).
Most significantly, Jesus spent 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness at the onset of His earthly ministry (Matthew 4:2). As the Apostles led the Church into a season of prayer and penance prior to the glorious celebration of the Resurrection, 40 days was naturally chosen an appropriate duration.
As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “‘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.” (CCC 540).
The 40 days of Lent have been counted in a number of different ways. For some centuries in Jerusalem, the faithful fasted Monday through Friday only, which meant Lent lasted eight weeks. At the same time, Christians in Rome and other western nations fasted Monday through Saturday, observing Lent for six weeks.
Always striving for the unity of believers, the Church eventually regularized the season of Lent for six days a week over a period of six weeks. With every Sunday excluded in the count because Sundays are the day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, the six weeks came up a bit short, numbering only 36 days. Ash Wednesday was established to make up the four days lacking.
It should be noted that on the official Church calendar, Lent technically ends at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday to give prominence to the Sacred Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. However, Lenten sacrifices rightfully should continue until the first Easter Mass to complete the full 40 days.
Lent is not meant to be a burden, but a time of spiritual renewal. Just as it is customary to make New Year’s resolutions to change one’s life for the better by, perhaps, giving up bad habits and/or adopting good ones, Lent is the time for Christians to increase one’s devotion to Christ through prayer, penance, worship, fasting, charitable giving and works of corporal and spiritual mercies.
Lent can be compared to training for a marathon. This requires running increasingly longer distances for some days leading up to the race. In the same way, the spiritual observances we practice during Lent strengthen us for the times when we face great temptations of challenges of faith.
As Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for Catholic Answers, wrote, “By denying ourselves something we enjoy, we discipline our wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures… By training ourselves to resist temptations when they are not sinful, we train ourselves to reject temptations when they are sinful.”
It’s customary for the faithful to make some sort of personal sacrifice throughout the season of Lent. For example, most people give up a favorite food, television program or activity. This is an important spiritual exercise that can have profound benefits.
There is some question as to whether these sacrifices can be set aside on Sundays and major feast days (such as the Feast of Saint Joseph on March 19 and the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25).
In reality, there is no rule, which leaves each person responsible for choosing what he or she will do, in accordance with his or her personal spiritual health.
For a successful Lenten season, many people find it helpful to do more than give something up. Think in terms of “filling the void” with a new spiritual habit or act.
There are many different options, such as making a Holy Hour each week, attending daily Mass, attending the Stations of the Cross weekly and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once during Lent.
Many priests recommend increasing the amount of time one spends in personal prayer. The Liturgy of Hours is an excellent place to start. Simply adding the Morning and Evening prayers would enrich one’s habit of prayer. When that habit is formed in two weeks or so, add the noon and night (Compline) prayers.
Praying the Rosary daily is another good step toward spiritual enrichment. Likewise, praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day during the 3 p.m. hour can have great benefit. Learning and using other prayers, such as the Anima Christi or the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel would be another option.
Almsgiving and community service are other positive ways to observe Lent. When preparing a meatless meal during Lent, calculate how much money you ordinarily would have spent on meat for that menu and set it aside to donate to Catholic Social Services, Catholic Relief Services or your own parish. Look for ways you can serve your parish, parish school or the community at large, using your time and talents, and sign up.
For more suggestions on how you can make Lent a spiritually enriching season, consult your parish priest.