By Art Canales, Associate Professor of Theology, Marian University
The six-week liturgical season of Lent is a time when each Christian is called to journey with Jesus in a much more serious manner than the rest of the liturgical year. Lent does not have to be a “downer,” it is not meant to be the season of “gloom and doom,” but one of joy. The word “lent” actually means “springtime,” and spring is a time when many people find good reason to celebrate with great joy. After all winter’s snow is melting away, the cold weather is breaking, and the days are becoming longer and sunnier. The season of Lent allows Christians to deepen their commitment to God as they strive to develop a deeper and meaningful personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, Lent should not be the season of moping around; it should be a season where one “gets right with God.” According to liturgical theologian Kevin W. Irwin, “Lent is an annual pilgrimage, an annual retreat, an annual time for stock-taking and soul-searching about the meaning of the Christian life” (Irwin, Lent: A Guide to the Eucharist and Hours, 1990; 1).
Originally, Lent or the “Easter Penitential Period” was an eight-week fast—individuals took only a single daily meal in the evening—immediately following the Feast of the Epiphany. Moreover, Lent was typically a period of baptismal preparation for those people—catechumens—who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday, the traditional and only day for baptisms—Pentecost in some areas—during the first four centuries of Christianity. The earliest Christian document which describes baptismal preparation and instruction is the Apostolic Tradition ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome dated around 215 C.E., and by 375 C.E., the practice of six Sunday's of Lent was already established as normative in the Western church. Furthermore, Lent included as one of its primary focuses, the final stages of those who are preparing to become fully initiated into the Christian community at the Great Easter Vigil—the evening before Easter Sunday. Those catechumens, who have been part of a one-year to three-year catechumenal preparation process, known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, prepared to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Today, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are the churches that still practice this ancient process of fully initiating individuals into the People of God.
There are no direct biblical references to the season of Lent; however, the sacred Scriptures, which are proclaimed during the Sundays during Lent, are rich in symbolism and spirituality. Although Scripture passages dealing with personal purification and enlightenment are part of the liturgical year or Christian calendar, which rotates the Scripture readings on a three-year cycle. The three-year cycles are as follows: Cycle A: 2014, 2017, 2020; Cycle B: 2015, 2018, 2021; Cycle C: 2016, 2019, 2022 etc., in the ecumenical or Common Lectionary. Biblically, there are three sacred stories or biblical narratives, which are accounts of Jesus' public ministry and all appear in the Gospel of John. Most liturgically-minded Christian churches proclaim these pericopes or “slices of Scripture,” in succession on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. They are so powerful and spiritual they may be proclaimed every year.
Why are these three gospel stories so powerful?
The first narrative is about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Jesus challenges the woman to be thirsty for a different drink, a drink that only God can grant. During the encounter, the woman begins to understand the meaning of coming to faith and living water. For Christians today, the passage is equally challenging and deserves individual introspection. Jesus is saying to us: “Where are you thirsty in your life? What area of your life needs to be quenched with God's living water?”
The second story is about the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). Jesus was not joking when he said, “I am the light of the world… and came to give sight to those who cannot see.” The point of this text is simple, but profound; Jesus comes to offer enlightenment and to give hope to a people and world living in darkness, both spiritual and literal darkness due to sin and inadequate faith in God. Jesus words should also penetrate our contemporary Christian complacency as well: Where are we blind in our lives? What area of our lives needs God's illuminating light? What darkness needs light shed upon it in our sinful and selfish lives?
The third account is the climax of John's gospel and is about the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). Although the resuscitation of Lazarus is a momentous miracle and is the culmination of Jesus' earthly ministry, it is not the ultimate purpose of Jesus' ministry. In actuality, Jesus did not do Lazarus a favor by bringing him back to life. Lazarus still has to go through the death and dying process again, that is, die a second time. Keep in mind, however, that just because a person is brought back from the grave does not necessarily guarantee they will be closer to God than those who have not yet died. Jesus demonstrates to the world through the raising of Lazarus that he came to give life—eternal life—that cannot be touched by or taken away from by death; therefore, death is not final. Again, Jesus here too, challenges his followers, then and now, to new life. What area of our lives needs to be raised from the dead? What area of your life is dead or dying? What part of your life needs resuscitation?
These are three powerful passages that deserve serious meditation during Lent, a time that is heighten by prayer, fasting, contemplation, and outreach. However, the author of the Fourth Gospel wants his readers—you and I—to get engaged with his stories and have them encounter our lives and empower our spirituality. The spiritual ramifications for Lent looms large because the season is geared for helping people become more attuned to God as they make a personal journey of purification and enlightenment.
Lent is a time of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The season of Lent has two essential elements that are especially characteristic of the Lenten journey. First, is the recalling and recommitment of our baptismal vows and/or the actual preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism to be celebrated at the Great Easter Vigil Mass. Second, is the penitential nature of the season should be overwhelmingly highlighted with greater emphasis on prayer, Scripture studying, fasting, celebrating various forms of worship, and growing in spirituality and holiness. All of these rituals will create a deeper focus on our true priorities during this poignant penitential period.
Lent is not merely about “giving something up,” but about deepening our commitment and personal relationship with God. Although Lenten themes embrace self-denial and avoidance of sin, the greater emphasis is on metanoia: “A radical change of mind and heart and a total turning away from sin and the world to embrace God” (Canales, “The Nicodemus Narrative,” The Living Light, 2002; p. 25). And this of course is through living Christian discipleship. Several Christian traditions maintain that Christians should go without certain luxuries during Lent in order to highlight the sacrificial aspect of Lent. In the early Church, Christians were expected to go without meat and wine, milk and eggs as a form of fasting, and without sexual intercourse among married persons as a form of abstinence. Then, and today, Christians view fasting as a way of preparing for the reception of the Holy Spirit, and as a powerful weapon in the fight against evil spirits. Pragmatically, however, I suggest that Christians add something to their lives during Lent, not necessarily drop something. For instance, donate some of your weekly groceries to a needy family, donate clothing to a particular charity, participate in a service project with an organization, visit an elderly home or veterans hospital, read a chapter of Bible each day, and/or attend a weekend spiritual retreat, the possibilities are limitless. Lent should drive us to become a better people, individually and communally.
Furthermore, another interesting point that most Catholics are unaware of is that the six Sundays during the season of Lent are not counted among the forty days of Lent because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter,” a celebration of Jesus’ triumphant victory over sin and death. After all Sundays are meant for celebration because we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus, thus Sundays are not designed to be laden with suffering and penance.
Lent is the first part of the paschal cycle that prepares Christians for the Day of the Resurrection—Easter Sunday. Lent extends from Ash Wednesday [February 18 this year] until the evening of Maundy Thursday—the English name taken from the Latin phrase linked to the ceremony of foot-washing mandatum novum or “new command”—and the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Holy or Maundy Thursday begins the second part of paschal cycle known as the Triduum, the three holiest days of the Church Calendar—Holy Thursday [April 2], Good Friday [April 3], and Holy Saturday [April 4]. The Triduum is also the shortest liturgical season of the Christian calendar.
Regarding the beginning of Lent—Ash Wednesday—is a universal day of prayer, fasting, and abstinence. Although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation for Catholics, it is strongly encouraged and might as well be since most parishes “swell up” and “overflow” with Catholic faithful who participate in this annual holy day. The liturgical season of Lent comprises of six consecutive weeks, which make up the Lenten season beginning numerically with the “First Sunday of Lent” and concluding with the “Sixth Sunday of Lent,” liturgically referred to as Passion Sunday. The Sixth Sunday of Lent is actually called “Passion” Sunday and not “Palm” Sunday, the more colloquial name. The rationale for “passion” is that all of the Scripture proclamations for Passion Sunday deal with the passion of Jesus, not handing out palm branches (Matthew 26:14-27,66; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 18:28-40). The liturgical celebration concentrates on the salvation and redemptive work that Jesus accomplished through suffering, dying, and rising and accentuates the solemn Eucharistic acclamation, which stands at the center of the Christian faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Another fact about the Lenten season is the liturgical color of purple, which is color of the priest’s liturgical vestments, and altar linens, and decorations throughout church-communities. Purple also symbolizes pain, suffering, mourning, and of course, penance. Moreover, the color purple is used during the season of Lent because the Bible tells us that the Roman Procurator Pontus Pilate and his soldiers placed a purple robe on Jesus, just before his crucifixion: “They put on him a purple robe (Mark 15:16-20). And, the Fourth Gospel proclaims, “Then they said, hail, king of the Jews!” as they placed a purple robe on Jesus (John 19:1-5). Furthermore, purple is a penitential color, and although associated with royalty that is not its primary purpose. Traditionally purple has also been used for Advent and is still used in the majority of Catholic churches; however, navy blue is replacing purple for Advent in many Protestant churches and Catholic churches in Europe.
Lent has been a period of repentance and reconciliation. Lent is a time for Christians to get right with God and to struggle and wrestle with their own Christian spirituality, or lack of spirituality. Lent provides the Christian community with an excellent opportunity for conversion. Lent allows us to offer confession of our sins to God, to make contrition with God, and rejoice in the celebration of God’s unconditional grace and love for humanity. All three: confession, contrition, and celebration are part of the Christian journey during Lent. This is one reason that the majority of Christian denominations offer reconciliation or penance services during the season of Lent or provide some type of healing service during Lent.
Moreover, Lent allows God to prune-away at our lives; that we might be changed to reflect more adequately the light of the kingdom of God, which dispels communal and personal darkness. Finally, Lent is a day-by-day process, one that mirrors our Christian journey, but it also provides us with an excellent opportunity to turn away from sin and the world and embrace God: wholeheartedly, without reservation, and in confidence. Therefore, God’s call during the season of Lent is to believe, proclaim, and live the Good News of Jesus the Christ, but not only for six weeks—forever.
This essay was originally published in two parts in the Herald Times Reporter, the local newspaper of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, but has been reproduced and reprinted every year since in various pastoral settings.
1. Arthur D. Canales, “Lent: Getting Right with God.” Herald Times Reporter, (Friday, February 1) 2002, A10-A11.
2. Arthur D. Canales, “Christians Prepare for Jesus’ Resurrection During Lent.” Herald Times Reporter, (Friday, February 15) 2002, A7-A8.