What is Lent?
Sister Judith Sutera, OSB
Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View from the Mount" in our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. this column appeared in the Feb. 18th edition of the Globe.
It's almost the season of Lent, and it may not be familiar to all of our readers.
Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation for Easter. Since it consists of the 40 days of Easter, the dates for it change as the Easter dates do. This year it starts on Wednesday, March 1. It has been a custom of Catholic and some other Christian Churches for centuries but is beginning to be observed in more Christian denominations or in some of their individual congregations.
The number 40 has always been important in symbolizing preparation. Moses stayed with God 40 days to the Mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (1 Kgs. 19:8). Most important as a model for Christians is that Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and nights in the desert before beginning his public ministry (Mt. 4:2).
Therefore, followers of Jesus set aside a time to pray and face their temptations so they, too, can walk in his way. The practice of observing days of prayer and fasting before Holy Week goes back to alkmost the beginnings of Christianity. The other two Abrahamic religions, Islam and Judaism, also mark periods of time each year in which the faithful ponder their sins and offer extra sacrifices of food and pleasure, along with extra prayers and charitable donations.
For Christians, it is a way to get in touch with the great sacrifice of Jesus, which will be celebrated in the commemorations of his suffering and death, and culminate in the joy of his ressurrection. We can hardly think about what Jesus has done for us without thinking of what we may not be doing for him, and how we can increase our faith and its practice. Like making New Year's resolutions, making lenten resolutions is a way of getting back on track by marking a certain time of year as the time to think more seriously about our lives.
Our English word "Lent" comes from Anglo-Saxon words relating to springtime. Symbols we associate with Easter, like eggs, blooming flowers and baby animals, all remind us that this is a time for life to be new again.
To accent this movement from death to life, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The day before is well known as "Mardi Gras," French for "Fat Tuesday," the day when we let go of the fun and excesses of life and get ready to go down the road of suffering with Jesus. At Ash Wednesday services, people are marked with ashes made from the palms used in the previous year's Palm Sunday service. As they have the cross inscribed on their foreheads, they hear the words, "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." This is a sobering thought, and seeing the Ashes on ourselves and others throughout the day is a stark reminder.
Whether your church observes the season of Lent or not, this is a good time for any Christian to reflect on his or her own path in life. Take on something simple and manageable like a little more prayer or Scripture reading each day, or doing without some small pleasure like a favorite food. Giving up something and noticing how that feels can be a good way to get in touch with suffering and self-sacrifice. If it reminds you that many are hungry and uncomfortable in this world, do something fun for them. In these ways, we are really following Jesus into new life.