TIME OF LENT
“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…” (Mt 28:1). This is how the story of the manifestations of the Risen One on the day of Easter starts. That is why the Christians chose to celebrate their weekly feast, not on Saturday like the Jews, but on the following day which the Romans called “the day of the sun.” It was soon changed to the day of the Lord. They gathered “to break bread” (Acts 20:6-12) and to offer to the needy brethren what they were able to save throughout the week (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:9). The early Church did not celebrate Christmas day or feasts in honor of our Lady, or any other for that matter. There was only the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. This went on for the first few decades of the Church. The Christians felt the need to celebrate the central event of their faith in a special way. So the first of the feasts, Easter, considered the Sunday of the Sundays, the Feast of Feasts, was born. It was like the queen of all feasts, of all Sundays, of all the days of the year.
By the start of the second century it was celebrated by all Christian communities. The celebration culminated in the night assembly of prayer which concluded with the Eucharistic celebration. The Christians attached importance to attendance at this feast. A famous Christian writer of the time, Tertullian, speaking of the difficulties that a Christian girl would encounter if she were to marry a pagan boy, says: “Will her husband allow her out the night of the Easter Vigil?
How did Lent begin?
To reap the spiritual fruits of Easter depends on how well this feast was prepared by Christians. They introduced the custom of observing two days of prayer, reflection and fast to express their sorrow for the death of Christ. They gradually prolonged the period of preparation: in the third century it became a week, then three weeks until on the fourth century it extended to forty days: Lent thus began. The Council of Nicea (325 A.D) speaks of the forty days as an institution known to all and spread everywhere.
The Easter feast must not only be prepared; there was a need to prolong its joy and spiritual wealth. The seven weeks, the 50 days of Pentecost were instituted and must be celebrated with great joy because—as Irenaeus put it, “they are like a single feast day and are as important as a Sunday.” During the Pentecost they prayed standing up. Fasting was forbidden and baptisms were performed. They would like the day of Easter to last…fifty days.
Why forty days?
We must be cautious in interpreting the significance of the number forty in the Bible. Many times they have a symbolic meaning. The forty stands for a symbolic period of time, short or long. For example, it is hard to believe that Elijah was able to walk for forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb, after eating one cake and drinking a jar of water (1 K 19:6-8); that Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai without eating bread or drinking water (Ex 34:28) and that Jesus was able to do the same (Mt 4:2).
The number 40 had several meanings. It refers to the life of an entire generation, or for a lifetime. It also had another meaning that interests us in a particular way. It stood for a period of preparation (without specification about its length) for a great event. For example: the flood lasted for forty days and forty nights…and prepared a new humankind; the people of Israel passed forty years in the desert preparing to enter into the promised land; the inhabitants of Niniveh did penance for forty days before receiving the forgiveness of God; Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights to reach the mountain of God; Moses and Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights to prepare for their missions. How many days do you think were necessary to prepare for the greatest feast of all Christian feasts?…forty of course!
What to do during Lent?
Lent has always been considered from its beginning a time to renew one’s life. There were three main things to be done: prayer, fight evil and fast.
Prayer—not to be identified with or reduced to a monotonous repetition of formulas or a request of graces and favors. It puts us in tune with the thoughts and plans of God. The first thing to do is to be converted and believe the Gospel. Jesus’ prayer was constant (Lk 18:1), although the evangelists noted it only in the most important moments of his life. His whole life has been lived in the light of the Father’s will. “My food—he said—is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34). The summit of prayer is the attainment of perfect communion with God’s intentions. This was the habitual state of Jesus who could say, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).
We cannot keep our eyes always focused on the Father. We are distracted, seduced, flattered by vanity; “our iniquities take us away like the wind” (Is 64:5) very easily. We are also fascinated by beautiful and good things in this world (work, success, family, school, sports). Unfortunately, we love them to the point of idolizing them and remaining slaves. We end up losing control of our actions and forget the Lord.
Here comes, as a time of grace and liberation, the days of Lent. They require us to stop, reflect, recall and impress in the heart the thoughts of God. Reading and meditation of the Gospel help us to recover the meaning of life, to find the point of reference for our actions, to rediscover the true values.
The fight against evil. The evangelist Mark says that, after his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and remained there forty days, tempted by Satan (Mk 1:12-13).
Again, the number forty. The whole life of Jesus is indicated by this number that also recalls the time spent by Israel in the desert. There the people succumbed to temptation and abandoned its God. Jesus repeats the experience: during his “forty days”, that is, throughout his life, he faces the forces of evil and wins. He will come out of the “desert” only after his victory on the last temptation, the most dramatic, that of fear of being abandoned by the Father (Mk 15:34).
Evil has been fully defeated by Jesus, “Satan fell from heaven like lightning” (Lk 10:17), but in us the devil continues his fight. John says that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19) and we check every day how strong his power is. The “Satan” that takes us away from God and life are unruly passions, pride, selfishness, greed for the goods of this world, jealousy, envy of other’s successes, the desire to dominate and to impose ourselves, the feelings of resentment. Against all these “evil spirits” we are called to fight during the “forty days” of our lives, but especially in this Lenten time. Where the word of Christ reaches, whatever Satan is defeated. All the demons are subject in his name (Lk 10:17).
Finally fasting. To follow the Master, the Christian must forget oneself, one’s benefit and think only of the brother’s good. This generous and selfless attitude requires a considerable capacity for renunciation and detachment. It is not possible to reach it without undergoing a severe asceticism. The most immediate goal of fasting is to shake oneself from sloth, indolence, leading to self-control, giving the strength to overcome the tendency to shy away from hard work and sacrifice.
However, there is the danger of reducing this practice to a formal ritual, a religious practice to feel confident and worthy before God. The prophets had harsh words against this false fasting. Here is Isaiah’s memorable text: “Look, on your fast days you push your trade and you oppress the laborers. Yes, you fast but end up quarelling, striking each other with wicked blows. Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high. Is that the kind of fast that pleases me, just a day to humble oneself? Is fasting merely bowing down one’s head, and making use of sackcloth and ashes? Would you call that fasting, a day acceptable to Yahweh? See the fast that pleases me; breaking the fetters of injustice and unfastening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke. Fast by sharing your food with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see naked” (Is 58:4-7). According to Zechariah the fast that is pleasing to God is: “To do righteousness and faithfulness, to exercise compassion and mercy each to his neighbor. Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the pilgrim, the poor, do not plan evil against one’s own brother” (Zech 7:5 10).
True fasting always leads to acts of love for the brother. The leftover food should not be put back in the pantry and stored for the next day; it must be immediately distributed to the hungry. A widely read book by the Christians of the second century—the Shepherd of Hermas—explains the link between fasting and charity: “This is how you practice fasting: during fasting day you will eat only bread and water; then you calculate how much you would have spent for your food during that day and you will offer the money to a widow, an orphan or a poor man; so you deprive yourself of something so that your sacrifice will help someone to be satiated. He will pray for you to the Lord. If you will fast in this way, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God.” And Leo the Great—Pope from 440-461—recommends to the faithful of Rome in a homily: “We prescribed fasting to you, remembering not only the necessity of abstinence, but also the works of mercy. In this way, what you will have saved on ordinary expenses becomes food for the poor.”
Lent and the catechumens
In the fourth century, the church began to organize a very careful preparation for baptism. The catechumens were subjected to a long period of training. For two or three years they faithfully attended catechesis and undertook to lead a good life to show that their desire to become Christians was sincere. Each community celebrated baptisms once a year, at Easter Vigil. Tertullian mentioned the holy vigil, spent in prayer and listening to the Word of God. It was concluded in the morning with the Eucharistic celebration in which the newly baptized participated for the first time. Since the celebration of baptism was the central part of the Easter Vigil’s ceremony, Lent took on a particular importance for the catechumens. For them it was the last step before receiving this sacrament. During these forty days they received catechesis every day. The bishop taught them and not just any catechist. During this time they also did many ceremonies and had some meetings where they were subjected to tests. It was verified whether they had assimiliated the fundamental truths of the faith and assessed whether their lives were consistent with what they professed.
The most important meeting took place on Wednesday of the fourth week. It was called the great examination. On that day—it was said—the catechumens’ ears were opened because they were taught the Creed and the Our Father which are the synthesis of all the Christian doctrine. Only if we keep these facts in mind we can understand the reason for the choice of the readings of this liturgical season.
The catechumens are like children about to be born. The mother (the Christian community) is dedicating her full attention to them, preparing the nourishment of the word of God especially for them, for their tastes and needs. Clearly, it is a very hearty and tasty food. The other children are also invited to taste it to become spiritually strong. They are offered the opportunity to reflect on the central truths of the faith and on the commitments (sometimes a little overlooked) assumed on the day of baptism.
Each year the first Sunday is always dedicated to the theme of the temptations of Jesus. Its purpose is to show to the catechumens and to the baptized the tactics used by the enemy and how to resist them.
The second Sunday presents the transfiguration. Christians are aware that following Jesus means to give one’s life. The grain of wheat dies, but always rises again in the form of a new life and increased a hundredfold. The ultimate destiny of man is not death but resurrection, as shown by the sign of the transfiguration.
From the third Sunday on the topics vary according to the liturgical cycle. In year B – one in which we find ourselves – some passages taken from the gospel of John are presented. They are intended to introduce us into the mystery of the new covenant. The first of these passages (Jn 2:13-25: the driving of merchants from the temple) clarifies the role of Christ in the covenant: He is the new law; one who desires to reproduce in oneself the image of the true worshiper of God must turn the gaze to Jesus.
The readings on the fourth Sunday refer to the same theme: the cross on which Jesus was raised indicates, even visibly, the embrace, the alliance between heaven and earth. It is the sign of the unfailing love between God and humanity. Whoever receives the message that this cross sends to the world obtains salvation.
The fifth Sunday concludes the reflection on the covenant. In the first reading, Jeremiah proclaims the gospel of Jesus and explains it with the image of the seed buried in the ground and intended to produce abundant fruits.
On Palm Sunday, as every year, the story of the Passion, according to the evangelist established for the liturgical cycle B, that is according to Mark, is read.
Lent: a season of reconciliation
In the early Church, when Christians committed very serious sins, they were excommunicated. If they repented and wanted to reconcile with God and with the Church, they were not readmitted immediately into the community. They were first expected to do public penance because their sin had been public and known by all. Such a penance could not be done in a matter of days but were performed over a prolonged period of time according to the gravity of the offenses.
After acknowledging one’s own sin before the bishop, and after he had laid his hands upon the penitent wearing sackcloth (a coarse and rough dress, a fabric of goat’s hair), his head is covered with ashes. He practiced rigorous fasts, dressed scruffily and dirty. He did prostrations, prayers and recommended himself to the friends of God, that is to the martyrs and confessors of the faith. Finally he appealed to the intercession of all the faithful. He was removed from the place of worship of the community, but sometimes he had to stay at the church’s door, and at other times he was allowed in but remained prostrated or standing, and could not receive Holy Communion.
At the end of the penitential period the sinner was reconciled with a solemn rite. On Holy Thursday at the Mass presided over by the bishop, the excommunicated, wearing the penitential habit and with head covered with ashes, presented themselves to the community. They declared their repentance and their willingness to reform. The bishop went to meet them and embraced them one by one. Lent became thus the preparation time for reconciliation. This use of public penance gradually disappeared, however the meaning of Lent, as a time when all Christians are invited to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, remained.