Lent is the penitential season of approximately 40 days set aside by the Church in order for the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. During this holy season, inextricably connected to the Paschal Mystery, the Catechumens prepare for Christian initiation, and current Church members prepare for Easter by a recalling of Baptism and by works of penance, that is, prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Even in the early Church, Lent was the season for prayerful and penitential preparation for the feast of Easter. Though the obligation of penance was originally only imposed on those who had committed public sins and crimes, by medieval times all the faithful voluntarily performed acts of penance to repair for their sins.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of lent. In this day, it is the clarion call to “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15). For the next forty days, the faithful willingly submit to fasting and self-denial in imitation of Our Lord’s forty-day fast in the desert. It is in these dark and still nights, these desert-times, that the soul experiences its greatest growth. There, in the inner arena, the soul battles the world, the flesh and the devil just as Our Lord battled Satan's triple temptation in the desert. His battle was external, for Jesus could not sin; our battle is interior, but with a hope sustained by the knowledge of Christ’s Easter victory over sin and death.
How to practice Lent
We should view the season of Lent as an opportunity to reflect on the significance of Christ’s death, examine our hearts, and confess our sins. It can be a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is not a “law” that we must follow, and there is a great variety of practices that we can try out. Based on the historic practice of Lent, try doing something in each of these three categories:
Give up something for God. Fasting is not a means to “earn” something from God, but rather a way to learn to curb your appetites and focus more completely on God. In practice, Fasting means having only one full meatless meal to maintain one's strength. Two smaller, meatless and penitential meals are permitted according to one's needs, but they should not together equal the one full meal. Eating solid foods between meals is not permitted. Catholics from age 18 through age 59 are bound to fast. Again, invalids, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt.
- Prayer and Meditation
Read over the Gospel accounts of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Reflect on His suffering, and the tremendous love that it represents. Reflect on your own sin and what it cost Him. Take out some time for prayers of confession and repentance. Do some spiritual “house cleaning.”
- Giving to the poor
Use the money that you save by not eating to help the poor. Consider doing some volunteer work. How can you show the love of Christ to others?
by Jennifer Gregory Miller, Kenneth P. Carlson and Margaret Gregory