Embracing the spirit of Lent

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Lent is a little later this year than usual. However, its length remains as it always is – forty days. The observance of Lent is in fact one of the most ancient Christian practices and has been part of the life of the Church since earliest times. It is, of course, the important period of preparation for the most sacred time of our liturgical year: the Paschal Triduum when we commemorate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord.

St. Irenaeus (d.203) wrote to Pope Victor about the different types of Lenten observance, reflecting the practices of his diocese in France. It was mentioned in the disciplinary canons of the Council of Nicea (325). The great St. Athanasius of Alexandria (d.373) implored his congregation to make a 40-day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386) gave eighteen pre-baptismal instructions to catechumens during the Lenten period. Pope St. Leo (d.461) preached that the faithful must "fulfil with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the forty days”.

Thus, as Lent comes around again, we are aware that we are participating in a practice that goes back to the earliest times of the Church. With its commencement on Ash Wednesday, Catholics across the world will decide on their own particular expression of the Lenten disciplines of abstinence, good works and of course increased prayer. We usually begin with what we will give up for Lent: chocolate, sweets, alcohol and, increasingly popular in this technological age, social media.

It is good to be reminded that the laws of the Church concerning Lent are simple: the present fasting and abstinence laws in the Church require most of us to fast (having only one full meal a day) and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On the other Fridays of Lent, we are required to undertake some particular practice of penance, the traditional practice which many still choose is abstinence from meat. The choice of Lenten penance is left to us individually, and in exercising that freedom we should carefully select the form we consider most appropriate for our own circumstances and growth in the Christian life.

However, Lent is not only about acts of self-denial, it should also be about deepening our faith and seeking to draw closer to God. Lent has a deeply spiritual purpose, it is about helping us prepare for the full celebration of the Paschal Mystery, when we renew our baptismal promises. In the end, whatever Lenten disciplines we take on, the period of forty days should lead to a particular spiritual climax. It should impel us to seek a genuine reconciliation with God via the Sacrament of Penance.

Lent should therefore culminate for each of us in an act of repentance. We should find ourselves longing for a deeply personal reconciliation with God. To desire to purify our souls in preparation for our participation in the Easter Triduum. Lent is a time of spiritual purification and Christ provides us with the opportunity to do this in the Sacrament of Penance.