Lent is one of the seasons of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church. The liturgical calendar revolves around major events in the life of Christ. Lent is the season when we recall in a special way Christ’s suffering and death before we celebrate His resurrection at Easter. Lent derives its name from the Middle English word lencten, which means “spring,” as this season occurs during the last part of winter and early part of spring. It is nominally 40 days in length, reflecting the amount of time Jesus spent fasting in the desert at the start of His public ministry (see Lk 4:1-13).
Lent & the Liturgy
Lent is a penitential season. Violet or purple colored vestments are worn during the liturgy. Flowers are not allowed in the sanctuary. Musical instruments, such as the organ, are suppressed and only used when needed to support singing. The great celebratory chants of the Gloria and Alleluia are omitted from Mass.
The liturgical focus of Lent is on baptism and repentance. Lent is the time of year when catechumens (unbaptized people seeking to enter the Church) are called to increase their prayer and penance to help spiritually prepare for their Christian initiation at Easter through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist. Those who are already baptized are called to remember their baptism and renew their commitment to living a life of grace.
Lent & You
Lent is a season marked by fasting, prayer and almsgiving (works of charity). The Church requires all Catholics age 14 and older to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. By “meat” the Church means mammals and birds. Fish and other seafood is permissible, as are reptiles and amphibians. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The law of fasting permits one meal per day, but does not preclude taking additional food if necessary to sustain strength, provided that it does not equal another meal. (Liquids don’t break the fast, unless it is a liquid that is considered food, like soup or a milkshake).
All Catholics are encouraged to go beyond the minimum requirement to take on additional forms of fasting. This may mean giving up sweets, caffeine, alcohol, meat, etc. The idea is to choose something to abstain from that will be difficult enough to be a real sacrifice for you, but not so difficult that you set yourself up for failure. Sometimes people will choose non-food things to abstain from, such as social media, television, Netflix, or listening to the radio. These can be good and worthy efforts, especially if they help us to create space in our lives for silence and allow us to refocus our attention on eternal realities.
Sometimes people will choose to give up things for Lent such as gossiping, taking the Lord’s name in vain, pornography, or some other sin. These are, of course, good things to give up, but they should be given up because they are sinful, not as a special Lenten discipline. The idea of a fast is that we voluntarily deny ourselves a licit pleasure, both as penance for our sins and to help us learn to more easily give up illicit pleasures.
Other times people give up certain foods for Lent because they want to improve their health. Eating healthy is a good thing, but that’s not what Lent is about. Lent is about spiritual health, not physical health. To keep fasting from becoming just a weight-loss plan, it must be accompanied by prayer. There is no prescribed way to pray during Lent, but some suggestions are to participate in daily Mass, pray a daily rosary or divine mercy chaplet, or engage in spiritual reading. Many parishes have a Lenten tradition of praying the Stations of the Cross on Fridays. I especially recommend praying along with the scripture readings from Mass each day during Lent, to unite yourself with the Church in her journey along with Christ to Calvary. This works especially well if you have a good Catholic Study Bible with commentary.
Works of Charity
We also celebrate Lent by performing works of charity for others, especially those in need. This can take the form of literal almsgiving (giving money to the poor), but it can also mean giving time and talent. This might mean volunteering to help feed the hungry (we take a group to Community Table every Tuesday afternoon). Or it could mean just making the effort to show love to those immediately around you — for example, instead of complaining that your roommate left dirty dishes in the sink, you could clean the dishes yourself without being asked. Whether big or small, voluntary acts of charity help us learn to think of others’ needs before our own.
As it is a season of penance, Lent is an opportune time for us to examine our selves and identify any acts or habits we need to repent from, and any aspects of our lives we have not given over wholly to God. It’s a good time to go to Confession, especially if you have not been in a while.
What Lent is All About
All of these traditional Lenten practices are there to help us open our minds and our hearts more to God. Whatever Lenten sacrifices or devotions you take on, do so with a spirit of cooperation with God’s will, desirous of a more intimate union with Him. Lent is all about teaching us to die to self, so that we might rise with Christ.