Traditions of the Lenten season
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
As the holiest week in the church’s calendar nears, the Sun sets out to answer a few frequently asked questions about the Lenten season and its history.
What does “Lent” mean?
“Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime (“lencten” or “lenten”), which refers to the lengthening of daylight during the season.
How did the season of Lent develop? How has it changed over time?
Lent grew out of several early Christian traditions. In the first three centuries, Christians observed a two-day fast in preparation for Easter. By the end of the fourth century, however, the fast had grown to 40 days.
It was during this period that the church formalized its initiation process. Then, as today, catechumens became members of the church through baptism, Eucharist and confirmation at the Easter Vigil. They made their final, intense preparations to receive the Sacraments during a 40-day retreat that included prayer, fasting and special rituals. Baptized members of the church supported the catechumens through prayer and fasting and prepared themselves to renew their own baptismal promises at Easter. These weeks of preparation are now known as Lent.
The Lenten themes of penance and reconciliation also developed during this period. Baptized members of the church who had committed serious sins were enrolled in the Order of Penitents, marked with ashes (the precursor to Ash Wednesday), separated from the community and assigned penance. Reconciliation for those who completed their penances was celebrated on Holy Thursday so the reconciled could participate in the Easter liturgies.
As infant baptism became the norm, Jesus’ Passion and penance became the Lenten focus. In the February 2004 issue of Catholic Update, Father Lawrence Mick put it this way: “Lent came to be seen as a time to acknowledge our guilt for the sins that led to Christ’s passion and death. Repentance was then seen as a way to avoid punishment for sin more than as a way to renew our baptismal commitment.”
This was the Lent many Catholics remember, with its rigorous rules and gloomy mood. The Second Vatican Council, however, called for a return to Lent’s baptismal roots; in addition to honoring Lent’s penitential character, today Catholics are urged to see the season as a time of renewal and rebirth in Christ.
Why is Lent 40 days long? (And why don’t Sundays “count”?)
One of the Bible’s symbolic numbers, 40 represents a significant period of time. Forty appears throughout the Old Testament; for example, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai and Noah and his ark endured 40 days and nights of rain. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, tempted by Satan; catechumens and early Christians fasted for 40 days in imitation of Him. This practice eventually determined the length of Lent.
Fasting is never observed on Sundays, as that day is considered a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The six Sundays of Lent, therefore, are not counted in the “40 days.”
Why do we abstain and fast during Lent? What’s the difference?
Abstinence is avoiding a particular food; on certain days during Lent, that food is meat. Father Robert Hyde, pastor of St. Margaret’s Church in Mattydale, said, “The abstaining from meat finds its origins in the lack of meat for the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert. They had no meat until God provided for their needs by sending them not only manna but also quail each evening.” Fasting refers to the amount of food a person eats — either none or very little. Along with prayer and almsgiving, fasting is a central tenet of Catholic spiritual practice. Following Jesus’ example, avoiding or limiting food is a way to practice self-discipline, to aid prayer and to cleanse spiritually.
Fasting and abstinence during Lent, once optional, became required in the early church. Extremely strict restrictions on the types and amounts of foods permitted each day during the Lenten season were enforced from as early as the 400s until 1966. Following the Second Vatican Council, the rules were revised and today all healthy adult Catholics, from the completion of their 18th year to the beginning of their 60th year, are expected to fast. All who have completed their 14th year are bound by abstinence. All Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence.
Where did the tradition of “giving something up for Lent” come from?
This personal practice is another kind of penance similar to fasting or abstinence. Abstaining from a favorite TV show, for example, or “fasting” from watching television all together is another way to exert self-control and strengthen one’s self spiritually. By identifying the habits that unnecessarily consume time, money or focus and resisting them, one is able to eliminate what is preventing him from drawing closer to God.
Why do Catholics get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
Ashes are a symbol of repentance, appearing many times in the Old Testament. In the fourth century only those in the Order of Penitents were marked with ashes, but by the 11th century all members of the church had begun receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent. Made by burning the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday, the ashes are imposed on the forehead and serve as a reminder of the need for repentance and the call to continuing conversion.
How did praying the Stations of the Cross become a Lenten tradition?
Lent is a time to reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus in preparation for his Resurrection at Easter; participating in the ritual of Stations honors Christ’s Passion. The tradition has its roots in early Christian times, when the faithful would visit the sites of Jesus’ Passion in the Holy Land. During the Crusades, pilgrimages to Jerusalem were popular, but became dangerous when the Holy Land was later recaptured. The practice was also only accessible to the rich since the poor did not have the means for such an undertaking. Early Franciscans popularized Stations as a kind of “remote” pilgrimage.
Why is purple the season’s liturgical color?
The deep hue speaks to the somber, penitential aspect of Lent. It also signifies royalty and Christ’s triumph.
When did the church begin observing a structured Holy Week?
In the first three centuries, Christians honored Jesus’ suffering, death and Resurrection with one service at Easter, with no separate days to mark the individual events of the Passion. When Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine, however, the faithful began to gather at the sites of the Passion to mark their anniversaries and re-enact the events. By the fourth century, this practice had given rise to a formalized, structured Holy Week.
What is the Chrism Mass?
“Chrism,” a Greek word meaning “anointing,” is oil mixed with perfume. Traditionally celebrated on Holy Thursday, the Chrism Mass brings together the bishop, clergy and parish representatives for the consecration or blessing of the holy oils used throughout the year. Oil of chrism is used in baptisms, Confirmations, ordinations and church and altar dedications. Oil of catechumens is used with those preparing for baptism. Oil of the sick is used in the anointing of the sick.
The author thanks Marge Babcock of the Western Region Resource Center, Father Don Bourgeois and Father Robert Hyde for their assistance with this article.