As most everyone knows, Lent began this week on Wednesday. Some of you may have read my blog in the past on Lent and what it means to me, but I think it's worth repeating.
Easter is the holiest day of the year for Catholics. It is the day that we celebrate Christ's resurrection from the tomb, His victory over death, and consequently our own victory over death. St. Paul tells us that we were buried with Christ in our baptism (Col. 2:12) and that if we have died with Him, we shall also be raised with Him (Rom. 6:3-11). But prior to Easter, we Catholics (and many of our other Christian brothers and sisters) have a period of preparation that we call "Lent", in which we follow Christ on His journey to the cross. I grew up in a faith tradition which does not observe Lent, and since becoming Catholic, I've discovered that Easter means so much more to me personally after taking the Lenten faith journey.
The word "Lent" is probably derived from the Old English word "lencten", which means "lengthen". The season of Lent falls during the transition of winter to spring in the northern hemisphere, during which time the days begin to lengthen.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays). As you may recall from both the Old and New Testaments, the number 40 signifies testing. We use these 40 days to discipline ourselves, to sacrifice, and to reflect, so that we may walk more closely with our Lord. On Ash Wednesday, we receive ashes on our foreheads, in the shape of a cross, with the words "Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The receiving of ashes on the forehead is reminiscent of the Old Testament, where men put on sackcloth and sat in ashes as a sign of sorrow and repentance from their sins. Our ashes come from the burning of the palms from the previous year, and they are blessed, sprinkled with holy water, and fumigated with incense. Our liturgical color changes to purple, a color of solemnity and penance.
During Lent, we abstain from meat on Fridays as a small sacrifice. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we also fast. The fast, as specified by the Church, consists of two light meals and one regular meal, no snacks in between. For some, that is hard; for others, not so much. The Church offers these guidelines as a minimum, but we are called to observe the spirit of the law rather than just the letter. For instance, fish is not considered "meat" during our days of abstinence. I don't care so much for fish, so I will sometimes eat fish on Fridays. However, if I loved fried catfish, I would avoid those catfish dinners with all the trimmings. If I were vegetarian, I would choose something else to abstain from on Fridays.
Of course, children, the elderly, and those with medical conditions are not expected to fast. When I am pregnant or breastfeeding, I will limit myself to just what I need and fast from other pleasures that day, such as sweets, the internet, etc.
It is also customary for Catholics to give up some sort of pleasure or add extra prayers or acts of charity for the duration of Lent. Although, as I mentioned earlier, Sundays are excluded from Lent. That is because Sundays are always a day of celebration of our Lord's resurrection.
On Fridays during Lent, we meet for Stations of the Cross. If we can't make it to chuch, we try to do them at home. Here is a good Stations of the Cross especially for children.
The Sunday before Easter is known as Palm Sunday. This celebration begins outside with the blessing of palm leaves by the priest, and the singing of "Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." Then the congregation proceeds into the Church. For the gospel reading, the Passion of Christ is read. The blessed palm leaves are brought home by the faithful and placed in their homes until the following Lent.
At the end of Lent, we celebrate the Great Three Days, or the Paschal Triduum. The first day of the Triduum, the Christian Passover, begins at sunset on Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord's Supper. This feast commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, and includes the washing of feet. After the Mass, the altar is stripped in preparation of Good Friday.
Good Friday is the only day of the year when Mass is not celebrated. This is a very somber service. The altar is bare, the holy water is absent from the fonts, and there are no processional or recessional hymns. The faithful make their way to the front where they venerate the crucifix, usually with a kiss.
I am often asked why we give up meat on Fridays, why we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and why we give up some personal pleasure for the duration of Lent. What is the point? What does it do? Is it just some arbitrary, legalistic law? I don't believe so. I have found that when I give up an unnecessary pleasure, I become more disciplined. Learning to discipline myself leads me to greater obedience to Christ. Obedience to Christ leads me into a deeper relationship with Him. Making the committment to fast and abstain during Lent is something that I never regret. The spiritual benefits are tremendous!
And, as I explain to my children when they grumble about no meat, my Lord took a flogging for me. He took thorns in His head, nails in His wrist, a sword in His side. He went to hell and back. My sacrifices seem so small in comparison.