The Purpose of Lent

The forty days of Lent originally began in the early Church as the final stage of preparation for baptism by those who were joining the Church at the Easter Vigil (the “catechumens”). The Gospels tell us that Jesus spent forty days in the desert in prayer and fasting before beginning His public ministry. Before they began their Christian lives and their “public ministry” as believers and witnesses to the Gospel, the catechumens also spent forty days in prayer and fasting. The rest of the Church joined them in solidarity and support; thus the season of Lent.

This year, when we are aware of the suffering and persecution of Christians in many places in our world, we might realize even more deeply what it means to commit our lives to Jesus, both in His Passion and in the promise of Resurrection.

 The Liturgies of Lent

The major differences you will notice in the liturgies of Lent will be the usual absence of the Gloria and Alleluia, as well as again using a few familiar chant melodies for the Penitential Rite (the Kyrie Eleison), the Holy, Holy (Sanctus), and the Lamb of God (the Agnus Dei). I would also encourage you, as much as possible, to foster a deeper sense of stillness, silence, and quiet before, during, and after the liturgy to allow the Scriptures and prayers of Lent to speak more plainly.

 Your Own Lent

Often we think of Lent as a time of self-improvement, of changing our habits of thought and action. That is important; we are all in need of ongoing conversion, always called to a deeper life with Christ. But the way we think about that change can be critical. The key question I pose for you and me to ponder this Lent is not “How do I want to change?” but “How does Christ call me to change? What must I do to become ‘Merciful Like the Father’?”

To look at that question honestly is truly dying with Him, and then we can truly rise with Him to a new way of life and deeper joy.

As we embark on the joyful season of Lent, which leads us through the desert and to the Cross, but then on to Resurrection, we hear again the three-fold temptation of Christ at the outset of His public ministry. Against these temptations which continue to visit our human condition, the Church sets the three traditional practices of Lent: prayer to counter our self-reliance; fasting to lead us beyond our self-indulgence; and almsgiving to remove us from our self-interest. As we leave the self behind, we find God’s grace in new ways: “Whoever wishes to follow Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow in My footsteps.” 

These words from Pope Emeritus Benedict a few years ago continue to inspire us not only to reflect on prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, but to invest ourselves in them this Lent:

Through the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, which are an expression of our commitment to conversion, Lent teaches us how to live the love of Christ in an ever more radical way. Fasting, which can have various motivations, takes on a profoundly religious significance for the Christian: by rendering our table poorer, we learn to overcome selfishness in order to live in the logic of gift and love; by bearing some form of deprivation – and not just what is in excess – we learn to look away from our “ego,” to discover Someone close to us and to recognize God in the face of so many brothers and sisters. For Christians, fasting, far from being depressing, opens us ever more to God and to the needs of others, thus allowing love of God to become also love of our neighbor (cf. Mk 12: 31).

In our journey, we are often faced with the temptation of accumulating and love of money that undermine God’s primacy in our lives. The idolatry of goods, on the other hand, not only causes us to drift away from others, but makes us unhappy; it deludes us without fulfilling its promises, since it puts materialistic goods in the place of God, the only source of life. How can we understand God’s goodness, if our heart is full of egoism and our own projects, deceiving us that our future is guaranteed? The practice of almsgiving is a reminder that God comes first and turns our attention towards others, so that we may rediscover how good our Father is, and receive his mercy.

During the entire Lenten period, the Church offers us God’s Word with particular abundance. By meditating and internalizing the Word in order to live it every day, we learn a precious and irreplaceable form of prayer; by attentively listening to God, who continues to speak to our hearts, we nourish the journey of faith initiated in Baptism. Prayer also allows us to gain a new concept of time: without the perspective of eternity, time simply directs our steps towards a horizon without a future. Instead, when we pray, we find time for God, to understand that his “words will not pass away” (cf. Mk 13: 31), to enter into that intimate communion with Him “that no one shall take from you” (Jn 16: 22), opening us to the hope that does not disappoint.

 This week … consume less, pray more, bestow an act of mercy on another.