The Meaning of Lent
Giving up coffee, chocolate or TV for six weeks before Easter Sunday can tend to be the common understanding of what Lent means in the greater culture. The temptation to fall into a routine of giving up daily niceties and meat on Fridays and calling it a “spiritual exercise” can be great, even for the most faithful Catholics. That is why coming to a deeper understanding of Lent is important for drawing closer to Christ through rightly ordered prayer, fasting and almsgiving before Easter Sunday.
What is Lent?
In the Catholic church, lent is a penitential season of 40 days that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the evening of Holy Thursday. The term lent actually comes from the old English word “lencten”, which translates roughly to “lengthen”, in reference to the lengthening of days in spring - in which Lent is always observed. The 40 day period is intended to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry. Lent is marked by the liturgical color purple, which along with royalty also represents repentance. During this period, Catholics are called to enter into the desert with Christ to prepare for the Triduum and Easter by praying, fasting and giving alms.
Prayer is a vital part of every Catholic’s life. Praying is essential to establishing and maintaining a relationship with the Living God. Prayer during Lent is often focused on contriteness of heart and repentance. This is harkened in by the phrase “Repent and Believe in the Gospel!” which is decreed while marking crosses on one's head on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, the faithful are encouraged to establish meaningful prayer habits, or rekindle lost ones. Although no specific devotions are required, a daily rosary or divine mercy chaplet are strongly encouraged. As lent precedes Easter, the Stations of the Cross are often highly recommended. Catholics may even choose to resolve to pray for a certain amount of time each day quietly, spending dedicated time with the Lord, or to go to confession on a more regular basis.
Fasting during lent is done in imitation of Christ’s complete fast during his 40 days in the desert, allowing the faithful to feel pains of sacrifice and self-denial. From the early ages of the church, ascetical practices were encouraged to help believers practice self-mastery, and focus on the mystery of God rather than earthly allures. Jesus himself also stresses the importance of fasting in Mark 9:29 when telling the disciples only certain types of demons can be driven out by prayer and fasting. While fasting practices in the Church have changed over time, the Church requires everyone age 14 or older to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and each Friday of Lent. On these days everyone aged 18-59 must also “fast”, which is defined by the USCCB as eating one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The faithful are also encouraged to take up personal fasts, such as giving up technology, coffee, sweets or buying unnecessary things. Because these types of fasts are voluntary, they can be done for any amount of time during lent (which means one can enjoy what they are fasting from on Sundays during lent if they so choose).
While most are familiar with the fasting and prayer elements of Lent, many are less familiar with the call to give alms during the penitential season. However, through prayer and fasting, the heart is disposed to almsgiving. Catholics are encouraged to donate time, talent or funds to their parish, diocese, charity or directly to those in need in their community. According to the Catechism (24620), almsgiving is both "a witness to fraternal charity" and “a work of justice pleasing to God." An intentional focus on giving helps one to focus on the ultimate gift, the promise of salvation through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
With a clear understanding of what Lent is and why it is observed, we are now primed to use the Lenten season as a time of repentance and strengthening of relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ through building habitual and intentional prayer routines, fasting bodily from both food and desires competing with God for our hearts and giving away the time, talent and treasure given to us by our God.