“Lent is a favorable time for intensifying your spiritual life; may the practice of fasting help you, dear young people, to acquire ever greater self-control.”
-Pope Benedict XVI
For many the word Lent brings to mind ashes, fish, no meat, giving up something and mortification.
We all know it is the 40 days before Easter, it changes dates every year, and that we are supposed to prepare ourselves with some kind of penance. You know, giving up something that you really like to do, or eat. But why do we celebrate Lent? And why do we say celebrate if it involves doing stuff we don’t like to do?
A General Explanation of Lent
Pope Benedict explained the season of Lent at a General Audience in 2012, and we will sum it up for you.
In the beginning of the Church the time leading up to Easter was the time of preparation for those who were to receive baptism. It was their initiation into the faith and a drawing closer to God. But over time, those who had gravely sinned, and then all the faithful, also began to live Lent—a time of repentance, of change of heart to prepare ourselves for the encounter with the Lord at the end of time.
40 is a reoccurring number in the Bible; it stands for the time of waiting, of purification, of the return to the Lord, of the knowledge that God keeps his promises. It doesn’t literally mean 40 days/years but rather it suggests patient perseverance, a long trial, a time for decisions.
40 days and 40 nights, Noah spent on the Ark
40 days, for the land to dry after the flood
40 days and 40 nights, Moses spent fasting in the presence of God to receive the Law
40 years, the journey of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land
40 years, the peace that Israel had before infidelity began
40 days, the Prophet Elijah’s journey to reach Mt. Horeb where he encounters God
40 days, Ninevites do penance for their sins
40 years, Saul’s reign
40 years, David’s reign
40 years, Solomon’s reign
40 days, Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness
What does the Jews’ wandering through the wilderness after being freed from slavery have to do with Jesus’ time in the wilderness? Both had moments of closeness with God, a season of love so to speak. There God spoke to their hearts and pointed out the path. But both also had temptations. The only difference is that the Jews’ sinned against God, while Jesus overcame temptation.
Benedict XVI says that the same situation, a time of first love and of temptation, occurs in our lives today. We can have profound experiences of God, which strengthen out spirit, confirm our faith, nourish our hope and awaken our charity. But we also are surrounded by a wilderness. The lack of meaning, the relativism, the indifference and materialism of our world today shuts us in. It seems as if we only have the here and now and there is nothing else beyond it. Even though the sky is dark around us, “for the Church today the time spent in the wilderness may be turned into a time of grace, for we have the certainty that God can bring forth, from even the hardest rock, living water that quenches thirst and brings refreshment.”
So the Pope explains that Lent is a time to spend in the “wilderness”, drawing close to God and there finding the strength to overcome temptations, there finding water to quench our thirst. So how do you do it?
There are three main tools that the Church proposes: prayer, penance, and almsgiving.
Prayer: How else are you going to grow closer to God except by talking to Him?
Penance: We repent of our sins and of having offended God, and we amend our lives. We don’t just say we’re sorry—we do something about it.
Almsgiving: We give of ourselves, and our very selves, just like Jesus to the poor and the spiritually poor.
Paul VI Audience Hall . Wednesday, 22 February 2012