BY REV. FR. PIUSRALPH EFFIONG, SMMM
The service of Ash Wednesday has come and gone. The ashes have been washed off, but the spirit of the event continues with a forty day of Lenten walk with the Lord through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The annual observance of Lent is a special season for each and every one of us. It is a moment of sober reflection and response to God’s invitation for repentance.
This period goes beyond public show of piety, but interior self-examination; which ignite in us the thirst to approach God with humility and self-emptiness and not with the pharisaic attitude. Our repentance must come from the heart as Prophet Joel exclaimed (cf. Joel 2:12-13). Through its twofold themes of repentance and baptism, the season of Lent disposes both the catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery.
Catechumens are led to the sacraments of initiation by means of the rite of election, the scrutinies, and catechesis. While the faithful on the other hand, listening more intently to the word of God and devoting themselves to prayer, and are prepared through a spirit of repentance to renew their baptismal promises. (cf. Ceremonial of Bishops no. 249). No wonder Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in one of his Lenten homilies avers: “Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One.
It is a period of spiritual ‘combat’ which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism.”
Bearing this in mind that we are going to reflect with you as we journey with the Lord within these forty days of spiritual exercise. Before we proceed let us dig deep a bit into the threshold of the tradition and custom behind this season of Lent and its significance, then God’s invitation for repentance and Church’s teaching on the Lenten observances.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF LENTEN SEASON
The term “Lent” which we employ to denote the forty days of fasting, prayer and almsgiving preceding Easter festival of our redemption, originally meant no more than the spring season. Still it has been used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term Quadragesima, Quaresima in Italian, and Tessarakosti in Greek, meaning the “forty days”, or more literally the “fortieth day”. This therefore is an imitation of the Greek name for Lent tessarakoste (fortieth), a word formed on the analogy of Pentecost (pentecoste), which last was use for the Jewish festival before New Testament times.
(www.newadvent.org). The custom of this period is dated to the Apostolic era. That is why some theologians are of the opinion that the season of Lent was established by the apostles themselves or in the immediate post-apostolic era at the latest. They assumed this season of fasting was closely connected with preparation for Easter baptisms – a practice likewise considered to be of apostolic foundation (cf. Romans 6), and observed everywhere throughout the Church since its earliest days.
Also, some of the fathers of the Church supported this view, for instance St. Leo exhorts his hearers to abstain that they may “fulfill with their fasts the apostolic institution of the forty days”. Taking a closer look into most of the ancient sources on the custom of Lenten season, it reveals a more gradual historical development. While fasting before Easter seems to have been ancient and widespread, the length of the fast varied significantly from place to place and across generations. Towards the latter half of the 2nd century for instance, In Gaul, Irenaeus of Lyons and there in the North Africa Tertullian tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, or forty hours—commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of Christ’s time in the tomb.
By the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria speaks of a fast of up to six days practiced by the devout in his See; and the Byzantine historian Socrates relates that the Christians of Rome at some point kept a fast of three weeks. Only following the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. (cf. Peter Gunning, The Paschal or Lent Fast: Apostolic and Perpetual (Oxford, UK: John Henry Parker, 1845, pp. 82-85).
In the light of this, we find in the early years of the fourth century the first mention of the term tessarakoste which means “fortieth”. This term occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Soon after the Council of Nicaea, the theory speculates, this fast would have been moved from its original position after Theophany and joined to Easter creating the Lent we know today.
Notably, St. Athanasius in his festal letter enjoined his flock to observe a forty day fast. And in 339 AD, while returning from Rome still re-emphasized the obligation to fast.
Despite this justified suspicion, there are other indicators revealing that the post-Theophany fast may be something more than a late fabricated legend. As early as the mid-third century, we begin to find references to a forty-day fasting period that is not specifically connected to Easter. The earliest of these is found in a series of Homilies on Leviticus composed by Origen, a third-century
theologian from Alexandria, Egypt.
To dissuade Christians from observing the Jewish Day of Atonement, Origen argues that “we [Christians] have forty days dedicated to fasting; we have the fourth [Wednesday] and sixth day [Friday] of the week on which we regularly fast.” (Homilies on Leviticus 10.2:5-6; English translation in Gary Wayne Barkley, Origen: Homilies on Leviticus: 1-16, Fathers of the Church 83 Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), pp. 206-207).
However, how this period came to be forty days duration is believed to be a predominant influence from the episode of Israelites experience in the Wilderness (cf. Deut 8:2-5; Ps 95:10), forty days Moses was in the Mount and received the law of God, (cf. Ex 24:18), forty days that Moses was in the mount after the sin of the Golden Calf, (cf. Deut 9:18, 25), forty days of Elijah in Horeb, (cf. 1Kgs 19:8), forty days of Jonah and Nineveh, (cf. Jonah 3:4); and in the Christian Testament (New Testament), Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights (cf. Matt 4:2), for forty days after resurrection Christ was on the earth with His disciples.
The number “forty” is mentioned 143 times in the scripture to symbolize trial, testing or probation.
It is so believed that on account of this historic events and its importance in the salvation history of man that the Lenten season is being designated with forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
GOD’S INVITATION TO REPENTANCE
God’s unfathomable mercy upon humanity cannot be measured. Beginning from creation He has been in constant communication with man and later in history through the prophets. God created all and saw that it was beautiful and left the first man – Adam with an instruction which he could not keep (cf. Gen 3:1-13). Thus bringing about the beginning of man’s suffering and death. Just as St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans will say: that through one man sin and death entered the world, and through Christ life was given back to humanity by the redemptive power of His paschal mystery. (cf. Rom 5:12-15).
That is why at the appointed time God sent His only begotten that whosoever believed in Him may have eternal life. (cf. Jn 3:16).
In allusion to God’s invitation to repentance, prophet Ezekiel earlier prophesized, “If a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all God’s decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of his offences will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done he will live.” (Ezekiel 18:21-22). Prophet Joel further cried out: … return to the Lord with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. (cf. Joel 2:12-13). This same proclamation was made by Christ in the New Testament inviting you and I to repent of our sins for the kingdom of God is at hand. (cf. Matt 4:17). God in any way does not desire the death of a sinner rather He often give him or her an opportunity to make amends. The time is here before us to say a total “yes” to Him who is ever ready to receive us no matter the gravity of our offences as in the parable of the prodigal son. (cf. Lk 15:11-32). That is why the public ministry of Christ had the message of repentance at the centre.
The act of repentance is not a matter of season or time, it is a continuous spiritual exercise which demands an interior self-examination. It is an acknowledgement that we are sinners and that we need a Saviour. One of the clearest pictures of this message came in the person of John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah. His message was simply, “Repent and be baptized.” He simply told the people that they were lost and in need of repentance. This message has not changed since that time. This same invitation is what the Holy Mother Church presents before us during this solemn season of Lent, with an invitation to grab it with sincere observance of the spiritual exercise behind to it.
CHURCH’S TEACHING ON LENTEN OBSERVANCES
The Season of Lent remains a period for the preparation for the great festival of Easter, an event which reminds us of the salvation brought about through Christ’s paschal mystery of passion, death and resurrection. According to the Liturgical Year General Norms (LYGN) no. 27, the liturgy of this Season prepares both the catechumens and faithful for the celebration of the paschal mystery by the various stages of Christian initiation, and recalling of the baptism promises as well as doing penance in preparation for Easter respectively.
Within this season in the Church’s liturgical year, Gloria is omitted in all Masses with Alleluia and in the Divine Office as well, the Te Deum is as well omitted during the Office. The weekdays of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Saturday before Palm Sunday take precedence over the memorials of a saint occurring on a particular day. (cf. Instructions on the Liturgy of the Hours no. 237 – 239, pp. xiv-xv). During this period except for some genuine need or pastoral advantage Votive Masses and daily Masses for the Dead are not permitted. Altar is not decorated with flowers during Lent, while musical instruments are not used except on Laetare Sunday and for Solemnities and feasts or to sustain singing.
In addition to these stipulated guidelines, the Church urges us to try as much as we could to avoid every occasion of sin, to repent and return to God by a good sacramental confession and do appropriate penance both those imposed at confession and other voluntary acts of penance. Regular attendance at Stations of the Cross every Wednesday and Friday is highly encouraged. The universal Church law also stipulates fasting and abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Bishop’s conference on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (cf. Canon 1251).
The Canon further states that the law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year of age, while the law for fasting binds those who have completed their sixteenth year of age and have not reached sixty years of age. Above all the pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance. (cf. Canon 1252). Following the Church’s teaching on the Lenten observances, penance and abstinence exercising within this moment in the liturgical life of the Church point to: recalling the memory of the passion and death of the Lord, sharing in Christ’s suffering, as an expression of inner conversion and as a form of reparation for sin.
The code of Canon law states clearly that all Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance…. On these days Christ’s faithful are in special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the canons prescribe. (Canon 1249). With this ecclesiastical injunction in mind, we are bound by conscience for our spiritual growth and sanctification of our souls to keep to these rules, not for the sake of keeping but reflecting soberly over the mysteries surrounding them.
As we journey with the universal Church within these forty days of prayer, fasting and abstinence let us prayerfully remind God of our weakness with the words of St. Gregory the Great: “Remember, Lord, though frail we be, by your own kind hand were we made; and help us, lest our frailty cause your great name to be betrayed”. (An Extract from a Hymn composed by him, used for the Season of Lent, Divine Office Vol. II p. 572*).
Finally, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us once more pause, ponder and remind ourselves of these words by Fulton J. Sheen, “Lenten practices of giving up pleasures are good reminders that the purpose of life is not pleasure. The purpose of life is to attain to perfect life, all truth and undying ecstatic love – which is the definition of God. In pursuing that goal, we find happiness. Pleasure is not the purpose of anything; pleasure is a by-product resulting from doing something that is good. One of the best ways to get happiness and pleasure out of life is to ask ourselves, ‘How can I please God?’ and, ‘Why am I not better?’ It is the pleasure-seeker who is bored, for all pleasures diminish with repetition.” Wishing you all a spirit-filled Lenten Season.