What is Lent?

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St Josemaria Escriva wrote:

“Lent should suggest to us these basic questions: Am I advancing in my faithfulness to Christ, in my desire for holiness, in a generous apostolate in my daily life, in my ordinary work among my colleagues? Each one of us, silently, should answer these questions, and we will see that we need to change again if Christ is to live in us, if Jesus’ image is to be reflected clearly in our behavior” (Christ is Passing By, no. 58).

Here are some frequently asked questions about Lent that can help us understand the meaning of the liturgical season of Lent more deeply this year:

 

WHAT IS LENT?

Lent is the period of forty days in which the Church prepares for Holy Week and Easter. It has been observed as a time of penance and renewal for the whole Church, with fasting and abstinence, since the fourth century. “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 540). The Church sets before us the example of Christ in the desert, so that with him we can prepare for the celebration of Passiontide and Easter by purifying our hearts, taking our Christian life more seriously, and practicing penance.

Contemplating the Mystery

“We cannot regard this Lent as just another liturgical season which has simply happened to come around again. It is a unique time: a divine aid which we should accept. Jesus is passing by and he hopes that we will take a great step forward – today, now” (St. Josemaria Escriva; Christ is Passing By, no. 59).

 

WHAT IS ASH WEDNESDAY?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and it is an especially penitential day, when Christians manifest their personal desire to be converted to God. The imposition of ashes is an invitation to live through Lent as a conscious and intense share in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, in his Cross and Resurrection, by taking part in the Eucharist and living a life of charity. The imposition of ashes originated in early forms of canonical penance. It began to be extended to all Christians in the tenth century. The Ash Wednesday liturgy preserves elements of this long-standing tradition in the imposition of ashes and the strict fast.

The blessing and imposition of ashes takes place at Mass, after the homily. In special circumstances it may be done within a celebration of the Word. The prayers for the imposition of ashes derive from Scripture: Genesis 3:19 and Mark 1:15. The ashes come from the palm branches which were blessed on Passion (Palm) Sunday the previous year, following a tradition that goes back to the twelfth century. The prayer of blessing the ashes makes reference to the sinful condition of those who will receive them. The ashes symbolize the weak and transitory state of our life on earth, as we journey towards death; the fact that we are sinners; our ardent supplication for God to come to our help; and the Resurrection, since we mortals are destined to share in Christ’s triumph.

Contemplating the Mystery

“The more you belong to Christ, the more grace you will obtain to be effective in this world and to be happy in eternity. But you must make up your mind to follow the way of self-surrender: the Cross on your shoulders, with a smile on your lips, and a light in your soul” (St. Josemaria Escriva; The Way of the Cross, 2nd Station).

 

WHAT IS THE CHURCH INVITING US TO DO IN LENT?

The Church invites the faithful to make the time of Lent into a sort of spiritual retreat, backing up our efforts to pray by our efforts to offer personal mortification and penance; the penances proposed by the Church are the bare minimum, to which we can, freely and generously, add more. If we live through Lent well, it prepares us for a genuine, deep personal conversion, so that we will be ready to take part in the greatest feast-day of the Church’s year: Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection of the Lord.

Contemplating the Mystery

“There is a kind of fear around, a fear of the Cross, of Our Lord’s Cross. What has happened is that people have begun to regard as ‘crosses’ all the unpleasant things that crop up in life, and they do not know how to take them as God’s children should, with supernatural outlook. So much so, that they are even removing the roadside crosses set up by our forefathers… In the Passion, the Cross ceased to be a symbol of punishment and became instead a sign of victory. The Cross is the emblem of the Redeemer: in quo est salus, vita et resurrectio nostra: there lies our salvation, our life and our resurrection” (St. Josemaria Escriva; The Way of the Cross, 2nd Station).

 

WHAT IS PENANCE?

Penance comes from the Latin word paenitentia, which in turn translates the Greek word metanoia, used in the Bible to denote the conversion, the spiritual change of the sinner to God. It designates a whole set of inner and external acts done to remedy the sin committed, and the state in which sin has left the sinner. Literally meaning a change of life, penance or conversion is used of the act of the sinner who returns to God after having turned away from him, or of the unbeliever who finds faith.

The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbour, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbour, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1434).

Penance can be expressed in many and various ways but above all in fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These and many other forms of penance can be practiced in the daily life of a Christian, particularly during the time of Lent and on the penitential day of Friday (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1434).

Contemplating the Mystery

“Conversion is the task of a moment; sanctification is the work of a lifetime. The divine seed of charity, which God has sown in our souls, wants to grow, to express itself in action, to yield results which continually coincide with what God wants. Therefore, we must be ready to begin again, to find again – in new situations – the light and the stimulus of our first conversion. And that is why we must prepare with a deep examination of conscience, asking our Lord for his help, so that we’ll know him and ourselves better. If we want to be converted again, there’s no other way” (St. Josemaria Escriva; Christ is Passing By, no. 58).

 

WHAT IS CONVERSION? WHY DO BAPTIZED CHRISTIANS NEED TO BE CONVERTED?

Conversion means being reconciled to God, turning away from evil, to re-establish our friendship with our Creator. It means repentance for and Confession of all our sins, including each of our mortal sins. When we have been restored to a state of grace (with no mortal sin on our consciences), we must resolve to change from within, to change our attitude towards everything that displeases and offends God.

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, (is) at once holy and always in need of purification, (and) follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (Lumen Gentium, no. 8). This endeavour of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart” (Psalm 51:19), drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1428).

Contemplating the Mystery

“We are at the beginning of Lent: a time of penance, purification and conversion. It is not an easy program, but then Christianity is not an easy way of life. It is not enough just to be in the Church, letting the years roll by. In our life, in the lives of Christians, our first conversion – that unique moment which each of us remembers, when we clearly understood everything the Lord was asking of us – is certainly very significant. But the later conversions are even more important, and they are increasingly demanding. To facilitate the work of grace in these conversions, we need to keep our soul young; we have to call upon our Lord, know how to listen to him and, having found out what has gone wrong, know how to ask his pardon” (St. Josemaria Escriva; Christ is Passing By, no. 57).

“We must be convinced that God hears us, that he is concerned about us. If we are, we will feel completely at peace. But living with God is indeed a risky business, for he will not share things: he wants everything. And if we move toward him, it means we must be ready for a new conversion, to take new bearings, to listen more attentively to his inspirations – those holy desires that he provokes in every soul – and to put them into practice” (St. Josemaria Escriva; Christ is Passing By, no. 58).

 

WHAT ARE CATHOLICS OBLIGED TO DO FOR LENT? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF FASTING AND ABSTINENCE?

Catholics have to fulfil the Commandment of the Church to fast and abstain from meat (Compendium of the Catholic Church, no. 432: on the days established by the Church), as well as to make their annual Confession and Communion.

Fasting consists of having only one meal on that day, although it is permitted also to eat a lesser amount than usual in the morning and evening. Except in the case of sickness, the commandment to fast applies to all those who have who have attained their majority until the beginning of their sixtieth year (Code of Canon Law, no. 1252).

Abstinence means not eating meat or meat products. The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year (ibid.). The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fasting and abstinence, as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fasting (Code of Canon Law, no. 1253).

We must take care not to practise fasting and abstinence with the attitude of seeing how little we can do, but to practise them as a specific way in which our Mother the Church helps us to increase our spirit of true penance.

Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes”, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance. (Cf. Joel 2:12-13; Isa 1:16-17; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1430)

Contemplating the Mystery

“We must decide. It’s wrong to have two candles lighted – one to St Michael and another to the devil. We must snuff out the devil’s candle: we must spend our life completely in the service of the Lord. If our desire for holiness is sincere, if we are docile enough to place ourselves in God’s hands, everything will go well. For he is always ready to give us his grace, especially at a time like this – grace for a new conversion, a step forward in our lives as Christians” (St. Josemaria Escriva; Christ is Passing By, no. 59).

“In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who ‘sees in secret, and will reward you’” (Mt 6:18; Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2009).


Thank you to the editors of josemariaescriva.info for permission to reprint this article.

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St. Josemaria Institute
The St. Josemaria Institute was founded in 2006 to promote the life, teachings, and devotion to St. Josemaria Escriva among all men and women who desire to find meaning and happiness in their daily lives by growing closer to God. The St. Josemaria Institute produces and distributes digital and print media as a means to spread Christian values around the world and to help people navigate and live well in the digital age.

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