Lent is a spiritual journey which starts on Ash Wednesday and takes us through 40 days to our most important Christian feast – Easter. At Mass on Ash Wednesday we receive a smudge of ashes on the forehead, to remind us that one day we shall die and return to the earth. Lent is also a call to repentance and to spiritual renewal.
What is Lent?
Lent is our journey to Easter. We prepare for Easter by giving extra time to prayer and by some regular practice of self-denial (penance), denying ourselves something we may legitimately have but which we give up, in a spirit of reparation (i.e. making up for our past selfish or sinful behaviour). Forty days are devoted to Lent in imitation of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, praying and fasting to prepare for his preaching and healing work.
Lent, a time of renewal. The word ‘Lent’ comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon word ‘Lencten’, meaning spring. When we think of springtime we think of the new birth of things – flowers bloom afresh after the dark, cold days of winter; leaves start appearing again on the once-bare branches of trees; nature comes alive. With the coming of spring everything seems to burst into new life. Lent is meant to be a new springtime in our spiritual life.
But for us living in the southern hemisphere there’s a problem. Lent does not occur in our Australian springtime: when we start Lent here we’re usually heading into autumn. Isn’t it strange, then, that we call this liturgical season – Lent – by an ancient word for spring? Well, the word was first used in the 4th century by a Church existing mainly in the northern hemisphere, where Lent usually begins with the coming of spring. So ‘Lent’ (spring) was used then and has been used for this liturgical season ever since.
Vatican II on Lent:
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) reminds us of two aspects of Lent. (1) Lent refers us back to our baptism, and (2) it stresses the place of ‘the penitential spirit’ in our lives as Christians. We were baptised into the life of Christ and into the Christian community of believers. So we are called to try and live fully Christian lives, bringing the Gospel into our daily lives. The practice of penance, especially some form of fasting, is meant to help purify us of our sinful ways, and prepare us to participate fully in the Easter celebration of Christ’s rising from the dead and his victory over sin and death.
Project Compassion: During Lent, too, we are asked to do something extra for others, especially the needy – acts of charity that cost us something. We are asked to use some of our time and resources – not just the leftovers of time and resources – to help those in need. This is part of our Lenten commitment to self-denial. That is why during Lent the Australian Catholic charity, Caritas, asks us to support its Project Compassion - a project to help the world’s poor. We’re asked to take home a Project Compassion money box and feed it with coins and notes during Lent as a way of helping to improve life for people in the world’s poorest regions.
Prayer, self-denial, giving: Lent is a time for a little more prayer; for denying ourselves something we like; for giving something we value for the sake of the needy.
Paul J. Duffy S.J.