The Definitive Guide to Lent
Fr Gavan Jennings
Introduction: What is Lent?
Each spring we Catholics enter a period of purification called Lent. Lent is the period which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends strictly speaking on Holy Thursday (not on Easter Sunday as we might expect). During this time we are encouraged to do three main things: fast, give alms, and pray.
Lent is a demanding time, especially if we take it seriously. We often look for excuses to not observe Lent, or are tempted to observe it in a watered-down manner: Lent-lite. Most of us sell Lent short and fail to appreciate its potential benefits.
Lent shouldn’t be a negative experience or, worse still, a mere matter of going through the motions so as not to disappoint your grandmother, society, or yourself. Lent is a lot more than the pain and sometimes pressure of ‘giving something up’ for 40 days.
The link between ‘God, others, self’ and ‘prayer, alms, fasting’.
While it is common to reduce Lent to a time of special diets and refraining from social media, that is only one-third of the story. Traditionally, the Church recommends two other practices: almsgiving and prayer. And they are at least as important as fasting.
It will help to understand this threefold practice if we look at what they aim to achieve: repairing three damaged relationships — the relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves.
Our relationship with God is damaged when He has fallen from the very first place in our lives, partially or completely. Prayer is what we do to repair this.
Our relationship with others is damaged when we live an egotistical existence, just for ourselves without consideration of the needs of others, especially those closest to us. This we repair with almsgiving, understood broadly as looking after the needs of others.
And finally, our relationship with ourselves can also be damaged insofar as we are weak in dominating the impulses of the body, for instance the desire for food and drink, or now more commonly addictions to our phone or to pornography. Fasting is an effective way of putting this relationship back on its correct footing.
Without internal conversion, Lent is pointless.
Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, while important parts of Lent, are misunderstood if viewed simply as ends in themselves. In Lent we give them an extra emphasis because they are a means to conversion, which is what really matters.
We can safely say that even if we do all the external actions encouraged in Lent, but were not to have some inner experience of conversion, then that Lent would have been more or less a wasted opportunity. If we reduce Lent to such exercising, essentially we’re secularising Lent in the same way that Christmas is secularised when it is reduced to nothing more than gift-giving. The bottom line is that Lent either brings us closer to God, or we’re wasting our time!
Conversion (from the Latin converto ‘to turn around’) simply put is a turning away from sin, and a turning towards God. If we didn’t have any sin there would be no need or possibility of conversion, and we could probably skip Lent! But there have only ever been two people on earth without sin: Jesus and Mary. The rest of us to varying degrees have sinned in the past, and sin every day. Without ‘a sense of sin’ Lent makes no sense. One of the unfortunate features of the contemporary world is the loss of the sense of sin.
If we’re not convinced of our sinfulness and our need for deep conversion, our Lenten practices would be similar to what are called the “vain observances” of the Pharisees in the Gospel (e.g. Mark 7:1-13). They observe many little prescribed rituals in a purely external way, not believing they really need them; rather, they consider themselves sinless. Ironically, their observances actually do them more harm than good, as they only serve to puff them up further. All the more reason for us to have a deeper understanding of what Lent is all about!
Lent: a once-a-year, 40-day spiritual bootcamp? Kind of.
From the very beginning of the Church’s life comparisons have been drawn between exercise for the body and exercise for the soul. The Greco-Roman world was almost as enthusiastic about bodily exercise and physical contest as our own. The gym was a Greek invention, as were the Olympic Games. St Paul draws direct parallels between the physical and spiritual exercise, or ‘struggle’. From the Greek word for physical exercise or training we get the word ‘ascetical’ which is easily applied to spiritual exercise, though perhaps not with ease, as is the point.
Lent can be seen as a 40-day, habit-building spiritual bootcamp. However, the key is to remember that it is the internal conversion that matters (not just ticking boxes to feel good about yourself or impress others). The aim of the bootcamp is to build sustainable habits that can be continued throughout the year.
For example, you could build the habit of going to Mass twice a week during Lent and then, with that habit firmly established, continue it throughout the rest of the year. It’s the building of the habit that is usually the toughest part; once the habit is built, simply continue it.
Especially relevant to spiritual purification during Lent is the sacrament given to us by Jesus Himself: the Sacrament of Confession. If you hadn’t already planned to do so, a good Confession should be central to Lent.
Where does Lent come from?
The ultimate origin of Lent lies in man’s deep-seated awareness of personal sin and the need for purification. We see periods of fasting and penance in many non-Christian cultures also — think of the Muslim period of Ramadan. For the Jews especially there was a very strong sense of the need for purification, often expressed in the external practices of purifying and washing the body.
Of course most Catholics are aware that the ‘first Lent’ was the 40 days spent by Jesus in the wilderness in preparation for his public life. In Matthew 4:1-11 it tells us how Christ was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit for a gruelling period of prayer, fasting, and combat with the devil and his temptations.
Still today in Israel you can visit the Mount of the Temptations in the desert area near Jericho where tradition holds that Jesus was subject to the three infamous — and unsuccessful — temptations by the devil.
Further still, there is a biblical basis for Lent. That number 40 immediately calls to mind some Old Testament penitential predecessors to Jesus, most obviously the 40 years spent by the Israelites in their journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Israel. To some degree we can see this as a period of purification before the Chosen People are fit to enter the land set aside for them by God (in much the same way as we can look on our whole life as a preparation for entering Heaven). Of course these Old Testament events were well known to Jesus, and would have been the inspiration for his own decision to spend precisely 40 days in the desert.
The early Church adopted Lent in imitation of Christ’s own penitential period. From earliest times Catholics have imitated Jesus in observing a period of around 40 days, though its length has varied in different regions and at different times. At several stages, there have even been traditions of having several Lents during the year.
Etymology of Lent.
Etymologies can be very useful for giving us a special insight into a concept, and this is especially true of the word ‘Lent’. The word has its origin in Old English lencten ‘spring, Lent’ and perhaps refers to the lengthening of the days in springtime.
The link between the word ‘Lent’ and springtime is very striking. It suggests that what is taking place in the natural world around us — buds appearing on the trees, first shoots coming up through the soil, and animals that had been hibernating for the winter all stirring back to life and action — must also take place on a spiritual plane, in the soul of each one of us.
Lent then is about the soul shaking off the sluggishness of the winter months and coming more fully alive. The fact that this awakening might be a painful experience is not surprising. It is gestured to by the famous poet T.S. Eliot in the opening words of his poem The Waste Land:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Timeline through Lent.
Now let’s look at the structure of Lent. We know that it begins with one of the Church’s two days of fasting and abstinence (more about this later), Ash Wednesday. However, Ash Wednesday does not occur on a particular date each year. How then does the Church decide on which date it will fall? Well, to know that we have to begin at the other end of Lent, in fact, at Easter itself.
The date on which Easter will fall each year is a fascinating and complex topic, but suffice to say that it is decided by a combination of the lunar and solar calendars: Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox — that day in spring when day and night are of equal length, hence equi- (equal) and nox (night). Generally this falls around the 21st of March.
Why does the Church use this date? Because the Jewish Passover, the day on which Christ was crucified, always coincided with the first full moon after the spring equinox, and so his resurrection must take place on Sunday following this date. We then count back 46 days from Easter Sunday to Ash Wednesday (not 40, as might be guessed) because the 6 Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday don’t strictly count as days of Lent!
Each of the weeks of Lent are essentially the same until we get to the final one: Holy Week. This week begins with Palm Sunday, commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday preceding the Passover feast.
Holy Week is, as its name suggests, of very special significance in the Church’s annual calendar. It might be useful to consider it a ‘real-time’ accompaniment with Jesus through the events of that week, of which we know a great deal. In fact, it is possible to reconstruct the movements of Jesus almost hour-by-hour during the days leading up to his crucifixion, and of course that makes it easier for us to relive those hours with him in the liturgy and in our own personal prayer.
How has Lent evolved in our time as Christians?
One thing is clear: Lent has become less demanding over the centuries! Perhaps one reason for this is that the focus in the past may have been excessively on bodily fasting and now the almsgiving and prayer dimensions are getting more attention.
In the early Church there was even a special Lenten ritual reserved to those who had fallen into very serious sin, were doing public penance, and would be joyfully reunited with God and the Church on Good Friday.
Until Lent was reformed with the Second Vatican Council in 1962, adult Catholics (but not the elderly) were required to fast every day of Lent — to have only one large meal and two snacks, and nothing else. Now the norm of fasting and abstaining from meat is obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The Second Vatican Council also revived an ancient custom which linked Lent and the final stages in preparation for baptism. With the expansion of the missionary activity of the Church in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a growing realisation that greater importance had to be given to the preparation of adults for baptism: the period of time traditionally known as the ‘catechumenate’ (that is, the period of receiving catechesis). On the other hand, infant baptism has been a tradition in the Church from the earliest times – but their catechesis has to wait till after their baptism, when they are a little older.
What saints have said about Lent.
All else being said, an ideal guide to living Lent is the example of the saints. Generally, we see that they took Lent very seriously, and in some cases engaged in extremely rigorous fasts. For example, as a result of deep prayer and fasting, Saint John Paul II was known to drop many kilos in the course of one Lent.
So, what did the saints actually say about Lent? Here are a few reflections:
“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst … He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.”
– St Teresa of Calcutta
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”
– St Thomas Aquinas
“Lent is not only an opportunity for increasing our external practices of self-denial. If we thought it were only that, we would miss the deep meaning it has in Christian living, for these external practices are — as I have said — the result of faith, hope and charity.”
– St Josemaría Escrivá
“Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”
– Ven. Fulton Sheen
What can I do or not do for Lent?
So, to finish, here are some practical suggestions for your Lent. Of course, these are only suggestions: you are not are obliged to do all, or even any, of these things! But you could, in your personal prayer and perhaps with the help of a confessor or spiritual guide, identify some suitable Lenten practices to work on each of your three relationships.
Your relationship with yourself
- Abstain from non-essential mobile use
- Abstain from social media
- Abstain from online shopping/non-essential purchases
- Abstain from YouTube/Netflix/TV
- Abstain from video/computer games
- Abstain from eating between meals
- Abstain from alcohol/desserts/sweets
- Abstain from fizzy/sweet drinks
- Have someone put a screen limit on your iPhone
- Only listen to music that lifts your soul to God
- Exercise three or more times a week
- Take cold or lukewarm showers
- Use Covenant Eyes if you struggle with pornography
- Use FOCUS’ ‘Uncompromising Purity’ if you’re a woman struggling with personal chastity
- Do Exodus 90 (for men) or Fiat 90 (for women) with a small group of friends
Your relationship with others
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter/church/community centre
- Offer lunch to a person who is homeless once a week
- Carry snacks/gift cards/money to give to people in need
- Ask your housemates how you could make their lives more pleasant (and do it!)
- Take on someone else’s chore
- Offer to babysit (for free!)
- Talk to someone about the Catholic faith
- Teach a skill to or engage in conversation with a younger or older person
- Regularly visit a sick or poor person you know
- Actively forgive someone
- Perform a daily or weekly act of charity (depending on how big it is!)
- Compliment someone every day
- Give up complaining
- Refrain from gossip
Your relationship with God
- Pray 20 minutes every day
- Pray a Holy Hour once a week
- Visit Jesus in a church every day (even if just a few minutes)
- Attend daily Mass
- Frequent the Sacrament of Confession
- Say a daily rosary/divine mercy chaplet
- Read a book on the Catholic faith for 15 minutes every night
- Go on a silent retreat (either self-led or with a group)
- Meet every few weeks with a spiritual director (if you don’t already)
And one last thing: if we mess up our Lent it is not all over! Don’t think that just because we succumbed to a Netflix binge or a fight with a parent or seriously offended God it is time to pack it in. That would be pride at work. Be humble: tell God you are sorry. Go to Confession if needs be. And simply start again.