Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
8 Mar 2011
Lent is the period of fasting leading up to the period of Easter, recalling Jesus' 40-day fast in the wilderness. Ash Wednesday signifies the start of Lent and on this day, ashes are blessed, mixed with either holy oil or water, and marked on the head with the sign of the cross, or sprinkled on the forehead. The ashes are made from burnt palm branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday.
When the priest imposes the ashes he says either "remember man you are dust, and to dust you will return" (see Genesis 3:19), or "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).
The ashes serve a dual purpose. First, we are reminded of our mortality and humanity as we begin the Lenten Fast. Second, the ashes are a Biblical symbol of repentance, sorrow, and humility. There are many cases in the Scriptures of wearing ashes as a sign of penitence.
It appears that a Lenten season preceding Easter goes back to the time of the Apostles. The length of time varied however the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), which was the first general council of the Church, Lent is to be observed for forty days.
The number 40 has a long Biblical history: the forty days' fast of Moses, Elijah and Our Lord in the desert.
There are two guiding principles for the observance of Lent. During this season, the faithful are to grow in their love of Jesus Christ and thery are to practice extra penance for their own and other people's sins.
So the purpose of Lent is to be of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion and simplicity.
Fasting: The Western Rite of the Catholic Church requires its members age 18 to 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, unless a physical condition prevents otherwise. This means only one full meal is permitted. The Fridays of Lent are days of required abstinence, meaning meat, and soups or gravies made of meat, are not permitted. Abstinence is required of those age 14 and older. Some give up things they have an inordinate desire for, e.g. sweets, caffeine, etc. By giving these up, the person learns to control a particular part of his or her life, which leads to greater self-discipline even when Lent is over. As such in Lent we are able to learn, examine, and get under control our material excesses. Whatever you decide to fast from, remember "Lent is more than a diet." Lent is about spiritual results, not material ones. So, while losing a few pounds may be a nice side benefit, all fasting should be done for God's glory and spiritual growth.
Prayer: Lent is a good time to develop or strengthen a discipline of daily prayer. An ancient practice of praying throughout the day, is a good place to start. A good goal for Lent would be to read Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer every day. If you already do that, perhaps you could add noon or night prayer (also called Compline). Contemplative prayer, based around the idea of silence or listening for God, is also well suited to Lent. There are also many excellent form prayers that reflect the penitential mood of Lent. We can also find many excellent prayers for Lent from the Scriptures. . Praying The Rosary throughout Lent can be rewarding too. Theology and liturgy should always be prayer, so a good discipline for Lent would be to make an effort to attend worship services whenever possible. Daily mass would be very rewarding.
Almsgiving (Charity): While Lent is about giving something up (i.e. fasting), it is also about putting something positive in its place. The best way to remove vice is to cultivate virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor and doing acts of charity and mercy. While as Christians this is a year round calling, Lent is a good time to examine ways to get involved and to make resolutions to actually do them. Giving alms can be done in more ways than just giving out money to people on the street. It can be done by helping your family, friends, and neighbours out of tight situations or being more generous to hired help. However, one of the best ways to give alms is to get out of your comfort zone a little bit, maybe by volunteering for a charity or a shelter. There are many lay religious orders, which devote much of their time to charity.
Scripture Reading: When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. It is a formidable weapon for us as well. Biblical illiteracy among Christians of all types is rampant and, quite honestly, shameful. Lent is an excellent time to remedy this problem. There are many wonderful books and articles. And for the social networker click on to xt3.com, the network of the Archdiocese of Sydney. There are lots of rewarding resources - texts, video clips and podcasts as well as a detailed Lenten Calendar with reflections and Gospel of the day.