What is Lent and what is its purpose? For those of the Christian tradition, Lent is a time of penance, originally designated by the Catholic Church as the preparatory liturgical season before Easter Sunday. Its use as a preparatory season is twofold. Firstly, the season resembles the 40 days and nights of Christ and His temptations in the desert. The phrase “forty days and forty nights” in scripture did not always mean exactly 40 days and 40 nights. It was a phrase used to express a long period of time. In the same way, the “forty days” of lent are not a literal 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Sundays and Solemnities, such as the Feast of the Annunciation and the Feast of St. Joseph, are not counted among the 40.
Secondly, Lent is a season of purification and penance. Lent’s physical burdens traditionally consist of fasting and personal penance. Abstinence from meat on Friday, although typically associated with Lent, is actually required by the Catholic Church for the entire year as a way of remembering and repenting for Christ’s death (Code of Canon Law 1251). Fasting in the Catholic tradition occurs on two days in Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death. Personal penance is private and, therefore, does not have guidelines. However, some common examples are cold showers, praying a certain amount of time every day, etc.
Although these two penances, fasting and personal penance, on the surface seem to be a burden with no benefit, they have a twofold goal. The primary goal of these is the “honoring of the suffering death of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Father James E. Goode, OFM, President of the National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life). The secondary goal is the building up of a resistance to sin. Fasting and personal penance increase one’s willpower and therefore, increase one’s resistance to the temptations of sin.
So, what is Lent to me? Lent is a way for me to humble myself before the Lord Jesus and ask Him for the graces needed for salvation. As a Catholic, I know I will forever be unworthy of Christ’s abundant love. However, I ask, through my fasting, penance and spiritual exercises, that He has mercy on me, the lowliest of His servants, and I echo the prayer of the penitent thief: “Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
I hope this Lent is penitential for you all, and that when the light of Easter morning peaks over the horizon, you shall be awakened to the true power and grace of God.
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