With Ash Wednesday we begin the beautiful and important liturgical season of Lent. Even though Advent is such a happy season, full of light and joy, I actually prefer Lent. Perhaps because there are so many other distractions during Advent with parties, Christmas cards, gifts, special meals, etc. I like the simplicity of Lent, the reminder to repent, and the exhortation to imitate Jesus Christ. I appreciate the silence and self-reflection of the next 40 days. While our focus tends to be on what we are going to sacrifice, the real question needs to be what we need to change in our lives to become more holy, more Christ-like. Here are 7 things we should know about Lent.
- When we observe Lent, we follow in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus. Before he met God and received the Ten Commandments, Moses spent 40 days in fasting and prayer. Jesus himself, before he began his public ministry, spent 40 days in prayer and fasting in the desert.
- The observation of Lent is an ancient practice dating back to Christians in the 4th century. The liturgical celebration was formed by combining a few practices. First, from the early Christians who used to conduct the Paschal Fasting for two days before Easter. This was eventually expanded to last 40 days. Second, from the catechumenate process that prepared candidates to enter the Catholic Church through Baptism and sacraments of initiation on Easter. Third, from the Order of Penitents formed in the early centuries for people who committed very serious sins and had to perform increased prayer and penance to be reintegrated into the church community. Their penance included wearing ashes on their head (from where the ashes of Ash Wednesday came from). Finally, from the Church community which began to join catechumens and penitents in solidarity for 40 days before Easter.
- Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on our forehead with ashes and the words "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return." We know that people die, but this makes it personal. “You” shall return to dust. Therefore, we must repent, trust in God’s mercy, and rejoice with the hope of salvation. The ashes come from the burning of blessed palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
- During Lent we examine our lives, increase our praying, fast/sacrifice, and increase our giving to the poor. The prayers strengthen us and help us cooperate with grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Our hunger reminds us of how we should hunger for God and puts us in solidarity with those who don’t have enough to eat. Abstaining from meat on Fridays also links us to the poor, who could seldom afford meat for their meals. Increased almsgiving is a sign of our care for those in need and a way to be grateful for all that God has given to us. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are a fundamental part of our Christian life.
- The guidelines for fasting and abstinence during Lent are simple: on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, people between the ages of 18 and 59 fast, which means they have only one full meal in the day, and use smaller snacks to sustain their strength. On these days and all the other Fridays of Lent, Catholics abstain from meat.
- An important part of Lent is to carefully examine our lives to see where we can improve and repent for our sins. We should do a good examination of conscience and take advantage of the powerful Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we ask God for forgiveness through Confession, we are forgiven and grace can be restored to our souls, making it easier to resist sin. We return to a state of grace with God.
- "The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1438)