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Op-Ed

Forty Days of Lent in the Church

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By EMN Updated: Feb 18, 2015 9:48 pm
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Fr. C. Joseph

“Some people think that having ash on your forehead is ridiculous. But I am neither ashamed nor afraid because the ashes remind me that I have to someday pass away and reunite with my creator….” – Walter Buns
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ent is a solemn season in the Church. It is a season to ponder anew our own need for ongoing conversion. It’s a time to ponder anew God’s amazing love and mercy for us shown so tangibly in Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins. And Lent is a time, a season, that has but a single goal: holiness. If, come Easter, you and I resemble Jesus more closely than we do today, it will have been a fruitful Lent.If we love more sincerely than we do today, perhaps especially that one person in our life who tends to annoy us, it will have been a fruitful Lent. If we turn away from sin that seems to cling to us so closely now, whether it’s bitterness, or lust, or gossip, or judgmentalism, it will have been a fruitful Lent. If these things don’t happen this will have been a wasted weeks, spiritually speaking. So, what, concretely, are we to be doing in this next month and a half before Easter? Well, the Church has always encouraged us to focus on three things so as to help us grow in conformity to Jesus. Those three things are prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These are the guides offered to us to help us grow in holiness. And now it’s simply up to each one of us to take these next few days from Ash Wednesday to think and pray about how we’re going to make use of them and then, come Ash Wednesday, to begin them in earnest.
The season of Lent appears after the Council of Nicea. With so many biblical precedents, did it really take the Church more than 300 years to seize upon the idea of fasting for forty days? The early history of Lent is interesting and complex; it is something of a “choose your own adventure.” Until relatively recently, the origins of Lent-known as Tessarakosti in Greek and Quadragesima in Latin, for “the Forty” were believed to be self – evident. Many of the theology handbooks of the nineteenth and early – twentieth century confidently claimed that Lent was established by the apostles themselves or in the immediate post – apostolic period at the latest. They assumed this season of fasting was closely connected with preparation for Easter baptisms – a practice likewise considered to be of apostolic foundation (cf. Romans 6) and observed everywhere throughout the Church since its earliest days. According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
Traditionally, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday. Since this is more than forty days, some contend that Sundays are not counted and that Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are counted instead. Others say that it begins on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. No one is exactly sure how Ash Wednesday became the first day of Lent.
Many Catholics were taught as children to “give up something” for Lent. The sacrifices in Lent are really penance, in the same spirit as the Ninehvites that repented at the preaching of Jonah. Throughout our history, Christians have found prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be an important part of repentance and renewal. Many Catholics now add something during Lent rather than giving up something, either to address personal habits that need work or to add some outreach to others in need. It is not necessary to “give up something” but it would be a tragedy to do nothing.

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By EMN Updated: Feb 18, 2015 9:48:19 pm