The Church’s observance of Lent has shifted and evolved through the ages, bringing the complimentary themes of penance and renewal into balance.
But the biblical pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving have never faded.
“Yes, it’s a season of penance and increased solemnity, but there’s also a sense of joy because there is genuine renewal happening within us,” said Father Christopher Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia.
Fr. Cordes spoke online over Zoom Feb. 10 as part of Columbia Knights of Columbus Council 1529’s Adult Education and Devotion (AED) series.
His topic was “Preparing for Lent.”
He drew inspiration from Adolf Adam’s richly researched volume, The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy.
Fr. Cordes said it’s helpful to view Lent in the context of the entire Church year.
Both Advent and Lent are seasons of preparation, “taking time to prepare ourselves day-by-day in an intentional way to celebrate some of the great mysteries that define our faith,” he said.
The 40 days of Lent are meant to help make the faithful more receptive to the grace of the Easter Triduum — the most solemn three days of the liturgical year — and the 50 days of Easter that follow.
“Penance and self-sacrifice are certainly important, but it’s about more than that,” Fr. Cordes stated. “It’s also about being more open to listening to the Word of God, growing in prayer, growing in acts of sacrifice and reaching out to help other people.”
The season’s distinctive character comes from two early Church influences: the days of fasting leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’s passion and death, and the final weeks of preparation for those who were to be baptized at Easter.
In those days, people seeking to be restored into the faith community after committing serious sins, especially sins against God and His Church, undertook a lengthy and demanding period of public penance.
“It involved the wearing of a penitential garment and ashes,” Fr. Cordes noted. “Everyone knew you were in this category throughout this extended time of being reunited with the Church.”
There was also the final phase of the catechumenate for people seeking baptism at the Easter Vigil.
“This came to be known as a time for all the baptized to prepare to renew their own baptism,” said Fr. Cordes.
He said the earliest known reference to Lent as it’s currently known is from the second century, when Christians prepared for Easter with a two-day grief-inspired fast.
“It was with a sense of sadness about the necessary death of Jesus that led to our salvation and allowed Him to rise from the dead,” said Fr. Cordes.
By the third century, that period of fasting had extended to the entire week leading up to Easter.
By 325, the Church Fathers taking part in the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea spoke of the 40 days of preparation for Easter.
The number 40 is a powerful symbol that resonates throughout Scripture.
It echoes the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, praying and enduring temptation after His baptism in the River Jordan.
It also points to the 40 days of flooding in the time of Noah, the 40 years the people of Israel spent in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s 40-day fast on the way to Mount Horeb.
Sundays, on which Jesus’s resurrection is celebrated every week, were not included in the Church’s days of fasting.
Abstaining from food as an aid to prayer and repentance was well known to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, while several other cultures practiced fasting in pursuit of better health.
“Christians came to understand fasting as way to prepare for the struggle with evil and to be ready to live a more faithful life,” said Fr. Cordes.
They also realized that cutting back on food and drink allows them to give more to people in need.
“So it’s also a witness to your faith: giving up something so others who have nothing can have something,” he stated.
Sadness and joy
Fr. Cordes talked about how the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s worked to restore the balance of Lent.
Their ideal is encapsulated in one of the prayers for Mass on the season’s First Sunday: “Each year, You give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with mind and heart renewed. You give us a spirit of loving reverence for You, our Father, and of willing service to our neighbor. As we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ, You bring the image of Your Son to perfection within us.”
“That really gives us a sense of what Lent fundamentally is all about and what’s supposed to be happening throughout our preparation,” said Fr. Cordes.
“It’s a joyful season, a time of renewal, a time to become more like Christ, to reflect His image and let it shine through us,” he said.
It does include the penitential practice of fasting and the giving-up of things.
“But the purpose is to allow that renewal to happen within us,” he said.
Catholics take on the communal sacrifice of fasting on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday and of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of Lent.
The Church refrains from praying the “Gloria” at Mass and replaces the “Alleluia” before the Gospel with an acclamation of Jesus’s Lordship.
The readings and prayers at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours throughout Lent focus on penance, preparation and spiritual renewal.
The three-year cycle of Sunday readings for the season include Jesus facing down temptation in the desert, His transfiguration and revelation to His Apostles that He would have to suffer and die, and various accounts of Jesus changing people’s lives physically and spiritually when they encounter Him.
Fr. Cordes noted that in addition to the communal penitential practices, Catholics are encouraged to increase their individual regimen of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
He suggested giving something up while also taking on a positive practice.
“Maybe daily prayers in a Lenten booklet or online devotional,” he said. “Maybe reading the daily Scriptures or going to weekday Mass or praying the Stations of the Cross.”
“It’s also helpful to give up something you enjoy, to remind you of Jesus’s sacrifice and our call to live a life of sacrificial love,” he stated.
Fr. Cordes pointed out that sacrificial almsgiving is a year-round activity, but it receives greater emphasis during Lent.
He suggested that each person consider an area of sin in their life that needs to be addressed, and resolve to work on it with God’s help throughout Lent.
It’s also good to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a means of “opening yourself up to God’s grace and move forward in a more faithful way,” he said.
He cautioned against taking on too much this Lent or not taking on enough.
He closed with a prayer that this year’s Lenten practices will be meaningful ways of drawing closer to God and bringing His light and love into to the world.