By: Bill Lucey, La Nostra Voce
The origins of Lent—known as Tessarakosti in Greek and Quadragesima in Latin, for “the Forty,” traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday, a practice that stretches back to the 11th century.
According to Catholic teaching, Ash Wednesday is meant as an outward recognition of the sins one has committed, with the mark representing penance for those sins.
For those who might not be aware, the ashes used for Ash Wednesday are made of palm branches used on the previous Palm Sunday, when Christians carry palms in recognition to the Gospels’ reference to Jesus’ path being covered in palm fronds on the day he entered Jerusalem.
As I quickly learned, the number of 40 isn’t just a random number associated with Lent and Easter Sunday. Biblical literature is in fact teeming with that precise number.
According to religious scholar, Nicholas V. Russo, from the University of Notre Dame, “The flood lasts forty days and nights (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17); the ceremonies surrounding the embalming of Jacob last forty days (Genesis 50:3); and the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years during which they receive miraculous sustenance (Exodus 16:35) before entering the land flowing with milk and honey.”
In addition, Elijah travels for forty days and nights without food after slaying the prophets of Baal and fleeing the wrath of Jezebel (1 Kings 19:7-8). The Ninevites fast for forty days to stave off the wrath of God (Jonah 3:4).
More familiar to Christians, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert (Matthew 4:1-2) preparing for his public ministry, a time that was punctuated with great trials and difficulties, times of searching, reflections and action. The church, then, challenges us to reflect on our faith, to search our hearts and to change our ways during our 40 days of Lent.
Technically, Lent is 38 days, but by adding the “paschal fast” on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, you arrive at 40 days of fasting before Easter.
Personally, I always find Lent a difficult time, mainly because I know that I should be giving up things I love. According to tradition, Catholics are called to three practices during Lent: alms giving, prayer, and fasting.
I generally breeze through the first two, but stumble, miserably, on the third practice, fasting or abstaining from something I enjoy like Hershey chocolates, Perrier water, or piping hot Dunkin’ Donuts black coffee.
And when I fail from not being able to give up chocolate, for example, I feel inadequate or that I failed a major test imposed on me by the Catholic Church, and more importantly, God.
I do make a concerted effort to attend mass followed by Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. But I know that’s not the same as giving something up that I enjoy.
I did take some solace after listening to a young priest at my parish a couple of years ago. He applauded those who were able to deprive themselves of their favorite habit. But he went on to caution that many Catholics who give up chocolate or beer are doing nothing but earning “brownie points’’ with God (that is, something to brag about with friends); while ignoring other aspects of the Lenten season, namely, almsgiving, praying, and of drawing closer to Jesus and of being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
As my anxiety grew with the fast-approaching Lenten season, I sought out advice and guidance from Catholic priests and religious scholars on how best to embrace the solemn season.
Liam Bergin, Professor at the Theology Department at Boston College, warns that “giving up“ without the other aspects, “could well lead us to the sin of pride and presumption that sees us as the source of our own salvation.”
Religious scholars tell us Lent began in the 4th century; and from the 5th through the 9th centuries. strict fasting was required; only one meal was allowed per day, while meat and fish (and sometimes eggs and dairy) were forbidden. Beginning in the 9th century, fasting restrictions were gradually loosened so that by the 20th century meat was allowed, except on Fridays.
One priest said that abstaining from meat on Friday’s (during Lent) isn’t such a big sacrifice with many Catholics anymore; since so many are vegetarians. So, many think to themselves, “I’ve got this!” and end up having a sumptuous meal at Red Lobster, missing the whole point of the season.
Michael G. Witczak, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.), tells me that the “goal of the disciplines of Lent is to recalibrate our lives, get them back in balance within ourselves, with others, and with God. Small disciplines like giving up chocolate aren’t valuable in themselves but valuable in reminding us of what is truly important: being in balance with God.”
Some priests advise that food isn’t the only thing we can give up. Giving up judging others for every day during Lent or giving up a bad habit (swearing, perhaps) can be equally as effective. Others, say addition rather subtraction might be the order of the day, by devoting, for example, more time to helping the poor, almsgiving, volunteering, or devoting additional time to prayer. One nice piece of advice was to abstain from going out to dinner for one night of the week; the money saved from not going out can be given to a worthwhile charity.
Pope Paul VI (1966), after all, began a trend toward penitential works (such as acts of charity) in conjunction with Lent.
Rev. Richard Fragomeni, Professor of Liturgy and Preaching at the Catholic Theological Union (Chicago, Illinois), believes that “the Lenten season is a time for us to give God greater access to our hearts. Therefore, whatever we decide to do for Lent, I hope we do as a way to get out of the way enough for God to do a divine work of conversion within us.”
Brian Daley, who teaches the History of Christianity at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, takes a more traditional approach to what Catholics are called to during the Lenten season. “The things we do in Lent,” Daley says, “are not meant to earn us God’s favor (“brownie points”), but to help support and direct our reflections on our salvation in Jesus. “So traditionally,” Daley continued, “the Church has urged us to focus our efforts of recollection on the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving – three traditional ways, recommended in the Old Testament prophets and the long Christian tradition, for helping us draw closer to God.”
Daley additionally emphasized that we turn more intentionally to God, so to let go of our unthinking consumption, and share some part of what we have with those who have not. “Lent is really not just about “giving up chocolate” or about self-punishment!”
As I was writing this, I thought of something I enjoy most evenings when I’m at home, and that is watching Jeopardy, the television game show.
That being the case, and with Lent about to begin, I resolve (fingers crossed!) to give up watching Jeopardy for the next 40 days.
Alex Trebek is just going to have to get along without me until after Easter.