Did you notice anything unusual about some of the people you encountered on your travels on Wednesday of this week? Many of you might have wondered why they had a big black smudge on their foreheads; others among us will be familiar with the ashes which are distributed every Ash Wednesday during Mass. This is the day which marks the beginning of Lent. The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning Spring, and lenctentid, which literally means not only Springtide but was also the word for March, the month in which the majority of Lent falls.
The liturgical use of ashes originated in Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. Jesus himself made reference to them when he said: “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sack cloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)
Since the beginnings of the Church there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter. The earliest mention of Lent in the history of the Church comes from the council of Nicaea in 35AD. The first mention of a preparatory period lasting for forty days comes from this time too. The length of time was adopted in imitation of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was famished. (Matthew 4:1-2)
What is the focus of Lent?
The focus of Lent is essentially to repent of sin, to renew our faith and to prepare to celebrate joyfully the mysteries of our salvation. This was reflected in the words the priest said when we went up to receive the ashes in my parish church – “Turn away from sin and believe in the Bible”.
During Lent we are offered the opportunity to come back to the Lord. We are all prone to greed, selfishness, pride, lack of love, lack of faith in God. Christ the healer calls us to change and to open ourselves to the fullness of life which he came to give us. These forty days of Lent are given to us as a reminder of the need for conversion, for change in the way we live. It asks us to reflect on our journey through life and to ask ourselves the reason for our presence in this world. Why are we here? What is the purpose of our existence?
The Lenten gospels spell out the rule of life for the Christian. On the second Sunday of Lent, God the Father tells us: ‘This is my beloved son, listen to him.’ A later gospel reminds us that ‘no one who believes in him will be condemned.’ We read about Christ’s great love for us culminating with his suffering and death on the cross. Lent therefore is primarily a time of penance that prepares us to celebrate the Paschal Mystery, the highpoint of the Liturgical Year.
It is important to remember that Lent is actually a joyful season. The first Preface for the Mass in Lent makes the point very eloquently:
Each year you give us this joyful season
When we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.
I’m sure many of you will remember as children being expected to give up sweets, which for children (and even some adults) can be a hard thing to do. The idea behind this was, I suspect, meant to help us focus on the whole idea of sacrifice. Christ gave up his life to save us from sin and death. Having to do without something we really enjoyed was a means for us to share in his Passion and death, in a way that would make sense to a child for whom the concept of sacrifice and Redemption might be a bit too theological to grasp! Being able to partake of the much-missed confectionary on Easter Sunday was a little celebratory link-in with the importance of the day on which Christ rose from the dead – the most significant day in the Liturgy of the Church. There was a whole sense of looking forward to the day, an anticipation, something arrived at after a time of hardship.
Admittedly we live in a time when the notion of hardship is not encouraged. Easter of course, no less so than Christmas, has been hijacked by commercial interests. Instead of waiting for our chocolate eggs until Easter Sunday they are on sale in the shops well before Ash Wednesday! I recall as a child how solemn and serious a day Good Friday used to be. There were only religious programmes on the television; mind you if you go even further back in time it was forbidden to go to dance halls during Lent.
Instead of giving up something during Lent why not take up something instead? Preferably an undertaking that might result in something positive for others. A friend’s two children have said that they will use the time to do what their Mum and Dad say, be nicer to one another and not fight anymore. So hopefully that will be a very peaceful and happy household come April 21st!
Good luck, whatever you decide to do!
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Written by Marie Therese Cryan