“From Forty Hours To Forty Days” –by Vickie Shepherd
“Let us by our prayers add wings of piety to our almsdeeds and fasting so that they may fly more readily to God. Moreover, the Christian soul understands how far removed he should be from theft of another’s goods when he realizes that failure to share his surplus with the needy is like to theft.”
St. Augustine-Lent I (Paragraph 2)
The Lenten season has evolved over the centuries to become a forty day retreat that prepares us (and especially the Catechumens) for the revitalizing waters of baptism. In order for us to prepare or better yet, as we thirst for the waters that bless us, some parishes place a purple coverlet over the holy water fonts to remind us of the things we take for granted until it is taken away. For the Elect the holy water is a symbol of the water that their soul’s desire for the cleansing freedom into which they will be reborn, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the baptized members of the Christian family we will thirst to be renewed and blessed by the very water in which our newly baptized have been born into new life. The water reminds us of our baptism and the responsibilities and authority into which we have entered; the Elect will also inherit these same responsibilities and authority through their newly acquired priesthood in Jesus Christ.
The history of Lent is very vague when it comes to the first century of the Church, although because of writings left to us by the first Popes and saints we have a slight record of its roots. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word that means spring’ and also the word for the month of March comes from that root word. March is the month in which the majority of Lent falls within; it is a time when the earth awakens from her winter slumber to bring forth the shoots of new life. Not much is known about how Lent was acknowledged by the Church until after Christianity was legalized’ around the year 350 C.E. /A.D. and the persecution of Christians ceased. What we do know is that when the season of Lent was practiced in the early church, the period was a forty hour time of fasting and sacrifices during the Passover Sabbath which ended with Easter morning. This was an important time of preparation for the Catechumens who would be receiving their Easter sacraments of initiation that year.
I can picture the scene as they prepare to take the catechumens to their initiation celebration, after the period of fasting and sacrifice, the sponsor would lead his/her catechumen hurriedly through the streets of town, trying not to call attention to their actions; and then turning off the main street to a path that led to a well-hidden passageway set far from the course of community activity. They would enter the hidden passage and meet a Christian guard who would greet them by drawing a half circle in the dirt on the pathway and the sponsor would greet him by drawing a half circle under the other half of the symbol to create a crude outline of a fish; they would then be welcomed and shown to an area where the others were gathering as they arrived. When the time came to start the ceremony the bishop accompanied by a couple of local priests would lead them in a procession through the catacombs to the worship area. As they wound their way through the dark tunnels their oil lamps would flicker against the damp earthen walls making an eerie light that could be seen as they approached the waiting Christian community. The excitement was hard to contain as they neared the worship area, one of the priests were carrying their scroll of the Torah in the procession and placed it gingerly upon the altar as they arrived in the cove. A pool of water was created to become the baptismal font for the night, and the bishop proceeded to bless the waters as the Mass began. Because of the secrecy that forced the Christians down into the catacombs to celebrate their Mass, the community of believers was a small one because of the limited amount of space. The whole ceremony was a celebration of life and spirit; the newly baptized were gathered to the awaiting community as they came from the waters of their baptism and were anointed into the royal priesthood of the believers of Jesus Christ. They would emerge into the world outside as a new child of God, a person who would share the Gospel message with those he entrusted into his confidence. The Christians of this time were not a shy bunch by any means, the Church grew by the thousands each time Christian disciples would share the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus protected those who followed His teachings and spread the good news among the people of their communities, thus the faith was spread far and wide and the Church continued to grow.
The Forty Days
“Remember man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Our present day Lenten observances begin the season with Ash Wednesday with the faithful receiving a cross of ashes on their foreheads, as the priest puts the ashes on their foreheads he recites the verse above that we may remember that we are mortal beings and God created us from the clay of the earth. The ashes themselves are a symbol of our attempt to do penance for our sins; the people of the Old Testament and beyond to the middle ages perhaps would don sackcloth (like a burlap sack of our day) and then tear it to represent a death. The death was between them as they realized that their relationship with God had been severed; as they approached the priest or rabbi of their community, he would cover them with ashes to remind them of their mortality and need for repentance. The people would then be sent to the back of the temple or to the outside steps to show the community that they had sinned; this in turn would remind the faithful to pray for these sinners and to provide them with labor for their penance. Not only would their penance be that of labor but they would also pray, sacrifice and do almsgiving to the needy, when the penitent returned to his church during Holy Week, the priest would ask for proof of conversion and admit the person for the Easter sacraments. (In Old Testament times the penitent would return to the Temple for a purification rite before they could enter the sacred temple area). Today Ash Wednesday is a time to repent of our sinful ways, and a reminder that this is a time of scrutiny to right our wrongs by doing penance and sacrificial works for them. Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence, although our fast is not as strict as it was for those in the early church mentioned earlier; their fast was from all animal flesh, including fish and seafood, also milk, cheese and eggs. Today our fast consists of no meat’ from land animals; two small meals and one main larger meal with no snacks allowed.
(No meat is actually the abstinence part of the fast).
The forty days of Lent have become a season to reflect, pray, do penance, sacrifice and give to others by doing good works; this is something that Jesus as our teacher (the apostles referred to Him as their Rabbi’) instructed us to emulate as He continued His priestly mission on earth. We can only strive to become a perfected person by knowing that only Jesus Christ was the only perfect person; we can follow His instruction and examples. The first example Jesus gives us is after His baptism, He is led to the desert by the Holy Spirit to pray and fast before He started His earthly ministry. He stayed in the desert 40 days and nights, and during this time Jesus was tempted daily by Satan to lose His focus on God and to tempt Him with things our worldly hearts desire. Jesus denied Himself and focused on those things of Heaven and the Father; even when Satan twisted the scriptures to fit his immediate purposes; Jesus caught the twist and countered Satan with the true word of God using the scripture as His sacred shield.
It seems at times that we are not worth the time that Satan might spend on us to keep us from our goals, but when that goal is to put God first in our lives, practice the Lenten tradition of fasting, doing penance and sacrifice with good works towards those in need; Satan will put us first on his list to thwart our every attempt. It always seems so frustrating when we try to fast and there is a plethora of goodies sitting around the office or home; when we try to focus our prayer and meditate we are suddenly reminded of our shopping list, household chores and things that need to be done. It is no accident, we are being tempted to ignore this meditation or fast, maybe in order to focus we should write down the lists we come up with, and then return to our prayerful focus. Offer up our temptations that keep us from our goals, I have a set of sacrifice beads that help me to purposely offer up the temptation for someone or some intention; have a plan for what you will do when you feel hungry, tempted, or frustrated. Be cautious, be persistent and “be the change in the world that you would like to see.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
The true meaning and purpose of Lent is to repent of our old self and convert to a higher spiritual level and life in Christ.
The Lenten season is a time of preparation for the Elect in the RCIA process; they are called to scrutinize their lives (as we are also called to do), they are presented with the two prayers that are the core of our beliefs in the Catholic Church; the Lords Prayer and the Apostles Creed. This is our way of passing on our faith to the newest members of our faith, and our way of sharing our way of prayer, and our primary beliefs that we have in our Christian faith. The Lenten season ends with the start of Holy Week, which is *”the week immediately preceding Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday. Solemn rites are observed commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Special observances recalling the institution of the Eucharist are held on Maundy Thursday; Scripture readings, solemn prayers, and veneration of the cross recall the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday. Holy Saturday commemorates the burial of Christ; midnight vigil services inaugurate the Easter celebration of the resurrection.”
The Triduum, which means the three days, starts on Holy Thursday and ends on Easter Sunday; to experience these three days of Holy Week is to experience the journey that Jesus has led us on and continues to lead us to as we seek to know the mysteries of His passion and the leading of His Holy Spirit in our lives.
© copyright 2003 Vickie Shepherd All rights reserved
*Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2002. 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
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