August 30, 2009

What is Lent?

Another View of What Lent Means

By definition, the season of Lent is the time of preparation for Holy Week, leading up to Easter. For many, it is a time to give up something like candy or smoking. It may be a time for more frequent Mass attendance for others. The following is a brief reflection leading up to what may be a better view of Lent for some.

Lent owes much of its spirit to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his ministry. We say he was tempted there, but a more accurate translation may be “tested.” The Jewish view of the desert was an abode of demons, especially that part of the desert where winds would howl around tall, rough stone. It must have been terrifying at night: dark, looming shapes, unearthly wailing of wind, and nothing else. In this place, Jesus was offered the opportunity to be the wrong kind of messiah. He rejected each possibility.

When the Hebrews were led from Egypt to the Promised Land, they refused to go in because they did not trust God’s promise. God led them into the desert for forty years, until they learned the trust they lacked. During this time, all the ones that had refused to cross the Jordan died. In this way, God’s people were purified.

In Noah’s day, forty days of flooding washed away the evil that had infected the world. This was not a permanent solution, just as Lent is not, unless we make it so.

In the Church, we often speak of entering Seasons as though they were countries or Ages of Man. For the Easter Season, we “wipe our feet,” in a sense, before entering. But even this does not fully describe the spirit of Lent.

When Jesus entered the desert, he left behind all the expectations of others, all the hopes, all the illusions. It was just Jesus and the Father, in the Holy Spirit. But in solitude, demons come. No role is more dangerous than the reformer. There were at least three wrong ways to be the Messiah, and Jesus rejected them all. The defeat of Satan during this testing hinted at the final defeat of evil through the Cross and Resurrection.

We are people of illusions. We think we understand God, we think we know ourselves and those around us. We plan our lives and are shocked when these plans fall through. We impose our wills on God or even say we know His plans. Jesus did not have such illusions, but we have illusions about Jesus. In the desert, Jesus had no illusions of his own to face and destroy: he was tested for our sake, so we would know who he was not. He did not come to bribe us with earthly bread, or astonish us with feats of invulnerability. He did not seek world domination or command an army. He simply did the will of the Father.

In Lent, we abstain from meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many people perform acts of penance or mortification, such as giving up sweets, TV and the like. What is the connection to the desert?

The desert experience is about deprivation. Most of the world experiences it involuntarily. For many people, however, deprivation is a great evil, and to be avoided at all costs. In deprivation, we discover that we are not all-powerful. We are slaves to our bellies, to the opinions of others, to pleasure. We cannot bear pain, so we take a pill. We cannot bear growing old, so we dye our hair. Like Darth Vader in Star Wars, we replace our humanity with technology until there is little of our selves left. Doing without can strip away some of the illusions and give us a glimpse of truth.

During Lent, we have the opportunity to hear voices that are usually lost in the din of pleasure and meaningless talk. We can enter into a private desert even in the midst of the world and face our own demons. We can tear down false idols only to be heartbroken at finding others behind them. If we are brave, we can run through this desert trying to find the real God amid the gods.

Thomas Merton writes about a kind of “dread.” It is the nagging sense that we have missed something important or that we have somehow been untrue to ourselves. It may feel like a crisis of faith, as though we doubted God. In reality, we doubt the false images of God that we ourselves have created. We doubt the bold pronouncements we make about our independence or open-mindedness. This “dread” is heightened by the fact that the God beyond our imaginings is so close to us, although we know Him not. Thoughts cross our minds about this, but we push them away. Perhaps as you read this you are thinking, “I’m not that clueless. I have faith. I know God personally.” Think again.

During Lent, we use abstinence from meat and acts of penance as metaphors. In a very small way, they model the rejection of illusions about what we need, who we are, and who God is. In this life, we try to make some progress in discarding our “disordered attachments.” At death, we will no longer have a choice. We cannot enter Heaven burdened with a thousand foolish attachments. As our bodies lie rotting, there will be no more illusions about the worth of attractiveness. As others claim our possessions, they will finally have their proper value to us. When we stand in judgment before God, we will have no illusions about our sanctity or goodness. All will be laid bare, and there will be no more hypocrisy, lies, or illusions. It is far better to begin discarding our foolish attachments in this life, and Lent is a good time to begin this work. The best time to start, however, is always now.

To end this reflection with Hope, we must remember that through all of this, God is with us. He may not offer comfort now, but He promises no trial beyond our ability to succeed. He offers us no truth we cannot accept if we become as children. When Jesus had finally driven off the devil, angels came to wait on him. When, through Jesus, we have rejected illusion and self-deception, we can be sure of continued graces from God. These are not the rewards of virtue but those gifts which are available only to real people.

Other Links On Lent:

Lent and Liberation

The Augustine Club at Columbia University

FAQ number one on Lent: click here

Why are there more than 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter?

Many people have written with “corrections,” saying the Sundays don’t count, Holy Saturday is part of Lent, the Thursday after Ash Wednesday doesn’t count, etc… The 40 days are reckoned from the First Sunday in Lent to sundown on Holy Thursday, probably because the First Sunday in Lent is the first day in Lent where we all gather together (Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation). This definition is Catholic, and other churches may have their own rules and definitions. The quotes below express our current practice, and are the “last word” on the subject until revised.

“Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, exclusive.” — General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar

“The first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of the annual Lenten observance.” — Paschale Solemnitatis – “On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts”

Both documents are included in the two-volume set entitled: “The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource” from Liturgy Training Publications
(Available through and other stores)

When does Lent begin and end?
The observation of Lent begins on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday (the first day we are sure to gather together), and ends at sundown, Holy Thursday, although the season starts on Ash Wednesday. So strictly speaking, what we call Lent is more than 40 days. Please see the documents quoted above for more information.

Special thanks to: Jennifer Alters & Fr. Bill Lugger.

Where can I find a brief history of Lent?

What is the biblical basis for Lent?
There is biblical support for doing penance, but the season of Lent, like all Catholic liturgical seasons, developed over time. Some aspects of Lent predate the Bible (as a single book). You can read some of the history here:  
What are often called sacrifices in Lent are really penance, in the same spirit as the Ninevites that repented at the preaching of Jonah. Lent is inspired, in part, by the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his ministry.

If I gave something up for Lent, can I indulge in it on Sundays, because they don’t count as Lent?
As stated above, Sundays in Lent are clearly “in Lent,” as their name implies. We determine the terms of our penance so we can choose to skip days if we wish. If we are trying to give up something sinful during Lent, it wouldn’t make sense to indulge on Sundays, of course. It is a season of turning to God in a special way, not just a collection of days and exceptions.

How is the date calculated? When is Easter?
Astronomical Society of South Australia
U.S. Navy pages on Easter calculations

Why aren’t Passover and Easter at the same time every year?

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