Are you stumped / confused / intimidated / flat out terrified by Lent? Have no fear! Your favorite convert comes to the rescue with the basics for Lenten newbies and some words of comfort for the journey. If this is your first time observing Lent in the Catholic tradition, it can be tricky. Believe me. I’ve been there. But don’t be intimidated! Lent is about making a good faith effort to be contrite (i.e. truly sorry for your sins) and to be more like Jesus (i.e. loving, just, merciful, willing to give of yourself for others) in anticipation of our celebration of the Resurrection (i.e. Easter). Do your best. Don’t be discouraged if you mess up. It happens. Pick yourself up and try again. After all, our God is the God of second chances.
Lent (just the facts, ma’am)
Lent is a 40-day period of repentance and fasting in preparation for Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday (March 5) and ends on Holy Thursday (April 17). (Yes, sticklers for mathematical accuracy, this adds up to 44 days. Sundays aren’t technically part of Lent.) Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are referred to as the Easter Triduum.
From meat (just to be clear, married folks). We are required to abstain from meat on all of the Fridays of Lent. Fasting (defined as only one small meatless meal or the equivalent of one small meatless meal spaced throughout the day) is mandatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Not everyone is obligated to practice fasting and abstinence. Folks under age 18 (or 14 for abstinence alone) and over age 59, pregnant and nursing women, the ill (physically and mentally), the frail, manual laborers according to need, and guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without seriously offending their host or causing ill will are not required to observe the fast. Think this sounds daunting? Our Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic sisters and brothers observe a much stricter Lent, which mandates abstaining from all meat, eggs, dairy, fish, and olive oil for the entirety of Lent. Also, married couples are obligated to abstain from sex. In short, we get off easy, Church of Rome.
The Rite Stuff
If you’re new to observing Lent in the Catholic tradition, there are a few rituals you’ll encounter that may require some explanation. The Imposition of Ashes: On Ash Wednesday the faithful receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance. All baptized Christians (Catholic or not) can receive ashes on Ash Wednesday in a Catholic parish. Kissing the Cross: On Good Friday we are given an opportunity to kiss a wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary to show our love for Christ and our gratitude for his Passion. (Again, you don’t need to be Catholic to participate in this particular ritual at a Catholic parish.) You’ll notice that on Good Friday no host is consecrated. The Holy Communion distributed this day was consecrated on Holy Thursday. Paschal fire: On the evening of Holy Saturday (the second day in the Easter Triduum) a fire is lit outside the church to symbolize our vigil of waiting for the Resurrection and the light of the Resurrected Christ coming into the world. This practice dates back to the earliest days of the Church.
I’m Sorry (So Sorry)
Penance means making things right. Lent is a season of turning away from sin and mending the tears our offenses have rent in our relationships with our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our God. What relationships in your life need healing, forgiveness, and penance? Lent is the perfect time.
Easter, oh, Easter, wherefore art thou, Easter?
This year we’ll celebrate Easter Sunday April 20. Why does the date for Easter change every year? Easter is what we call a moveable feast. In 325 AD, the bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea decided (among other things … *cough cough* NICENE Creed) that the Church will observe Easter on the Sunday following the paschal moon (the full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox). The paschal moon determines the date of Passover (the traditional Jewish holy day observed by Our Lord on Holy Thursday). Since the equinox can happen on different dates and different times based on location, the Church uses an approximation to set a universal date for Easter every year.
After our Lenten journey, we arrive at the holiest day in the liturgical year … Easter. You’ll notice that during Lent we don’t sing the Alleluia during Mass. On Easter, we join with the Church throughout the world in proclaiming “Alleluia!” at the news that Christ has risen from the dead. At the end of this Lenten road of self-confrontation, prayer, sacrifice, and penance, there is joy. There is unfettered and supreme joy. It belongs to you and to everyone who dares to hope in the Risen Christ. Know that your Lenten journey has meaning (regardless of what it looks like, regardless of whether it has been marked by starts and stops or sidetracks and stumbling forward). It matters. And your family, the Church, is with you every step of the way.