History of Lent


What are the origins of Lent? Did the Church always have this time before Easter?

Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter. In the desire to renew the liturgical practices of the Church, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II stated, "The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent -- the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance -- should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God's word more frequently and devote more time to prayer" (no. 109). The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning "Spring," and lenctentid, which literally means not only "Springtide" but also was the word for "March," the month in which the majority of Lent falls.
Since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter. For instance, St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West: "The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). When Rufinus translated this passage from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made between "40" and "hours" made the meaning to appear to be "40 days, twenty-four hours a day." The importance of the passage, nevertheless, remains that since the time of "our forefathers" -- always an expression for the apostles -- a 40-day period of Lenten preparation existed. However, the actual practices and duration of Lent were still not homogenous throughout the Church.
Lent becomes more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. The Council of Nicea (325), in its disciplinary canons, noted that two provincial synods should be held each year, "one before the 40 days of Lent." St. Athanasius (d. 373) in this "Festal Letters" implored his congregation to make a 40-day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his Catechectical Lectures, which are the paradigm for our current RCIA programs, had 18 pre-baptismal instructions given to the catechumens during Lent. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) in his series of "Festal Letters" also noted the practices and duration of Lent, emphasizing the 40-day period of fasting. Finally, Pope St. Leo (d. 461) preached that the faithful must "fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days," again noting the apostolic origins of Lent. One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.
Of course, the number "40" has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, "Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water" (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked "40 days and 40 nights" to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for "40 days and 40 nights" in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).
Once the 40 days of Lent were established, the next development concerned how much fasting was to be done. In Jerusalem, for instance, people fasted for 40 days, Monday through Friday, but not on Saturday or Sunday, thereby making Lent last for eight weeks. In Rome and in the West, people fasted for six weeks, Monday through Saturday, thereby making Lent last for six weeks. Eventually, the practice prevailed of fasting for six days a week over the course of six weeks, and Ash Wednesday was instituted to bring the number of fast days before Easter to 40. The rules of fasting varied. First, some areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: "We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs."
Nevertheless, I was always taught, "If you gave something up for the Lord, tough it out. Don't act like a Pharisee looking for a loophole."
Second, the general rule was for a person to have one meal a day, in the evening or at 3 p.m.
These Lenten fasting rules also evolved. Eventually, a smaller repast was allowed during the day to keep up one's strength from manual labor. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Friday. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed totally. (However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.)
Over the years, modifications have been made to the Lenten observances, making our practices not only simple but also easy. Ash Wednesday still marks the beginning of Lent, which lasts for 40 days, not including Sundays. The present fasting and abstinence laws are very simple: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one's strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat. People are still encouraged "to give up something" for Lent as a sacrifice. (An interesting note is that technically on Sundays and solemnities like St. Joseph's Day (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25), one is exempt and can partake of whatever has been offered up for Lent.
Nevertheless, I was always taught, "If you gave something up for the Lord, tough it out. Don't act like a Pharisee looking for a loophole." Moreover, an emphasis must be placed on performing spiritual works, like attending the Stations of the Cross, attending Mass, making a weekly holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, taking time for personal prayer and spiritual reading and most especially making a good confession and receiving sacramental absolution. Although the practices may have evolved over the centuries, the focus remains the same: to repent of sin, to renew our faith and to prepare to celebrate joyfully the mysteries of our salvation.

40 ways to get most out of Lent
Dr Marcellino D’ Ambrosio, Catholic Theologian and speaker

1.      Take 30 minutes to pray, ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance, look over this list,and make a few practical Lenten resolutions.  Be careful.  If you try to do too much, you may not succeed in anything!  If you need to get up early or stay up late to get the 30 minutes of quiet, do it.  Turn off your phone and computer.  Don’t put it off and don’t allow interruptions.
2.      Get up earlier than anyone else in your house and spend your first 15 minutes of the day thanking God for the gift of life and offering your day to Him.
3.      Get to daily Mass. 
4.      If you can’t do Mass daily, go to Mass on Fridays in addition to Sunday and thank Him for laying his life down for you.  Maybe you can go another time or two as well.
5.      Spend at least 30 minutes in Eucharistic adoration at least one time during the week.
6.      Recover the Catholic tradition of making frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament throughout the week, even if it is only for 5 minutes.
7.      Get to confession at least once during the Season of Lent after making a good examination of conscience.
8.      In addition to the penance assigned by the priest, fulfill the conditions necessary for a plenary indulgence.  
9.      Make a decision to read at least some Scripture every day. Starting with Today's!
10.  Even if you can’t get to daily Mass during the Lenten Season,get a list of the readings used each day in Mass, and read these readings daily.  During special seasons such as Lent, the Mass readings are thematically coordinated and make for a fantastic Bible study!
11.  Pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  
12.  Get to know the Fathers of the Church and read selections from them along with Scripture.  
13.  Make the Stations of the Cross each Friday of the Season of Lent either with a group or by yourself.  If you have kids, bring them.
14.  Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary often during Lent, especially on Friday and Wednesday.  The glorious mysteries are especially appropriate on Sundays.  Joyful and Luminous mysteries are great on other days.
15.  Purchase the Scriptural Rosary, which supplies you with a scripture verse to recite between each Hail Mary.  This makes it easier to meditate on the mysteries. 
16.  If you’ve never done a family rosary, begin doing it.  If starting with once a week, try Friday or Sunday.  If it’s tough to start with a full five decades, try starting with one.  Use the Scriptural Rosary and have a different person read each of the Scriptures between the Hail Marys.  This gets everyone more involved.
17.  Make it a habit to stop at least five times a day, raise your heart and mind to God, and say a short prayer such as “Jesus, I love you,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or “Lord, I offer it up for you.”
18.  Pray each day for the intentions and health of the Holy Father.
19.  Pray each day for your bishop and all the bishops of the Catholic Church.
20.  Pray for your priests and deacons and for all priests and deacons.
21.  Pray for the millions of Christians suffering under persecution in various Muslim and Communist countries around the world such as the Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and North Korea.
22.  Pray for Christian unity, that there would be one flock and one shepherd.
23.  Pray for the evangelization of all those who have not yet heard and accepted the Good News about Jesus.
24.  Pray for your enemies.  In fact, think of the person who has most hurt you or who most annoys you and spend several minutes each day thanking God for that person and asking God to bless him or her.
25.  Pray for an end to abortion. Pray for pregnant women contemplating abortion.
26.  Pray for a just peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Holy Land and elsewhere.  Pray for our troops and for others in harm’s way.
27.  Pray for an end to capital punishment.  Pray for those on death row, and for the families of murder victims.
28.  Find a form of fasting that is appropriate for you, given your age, state of health, and state of life.  Some fast on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Some fast from sweets or alcohol throughout Lent.  Some fast on one or more days per week from breakfast all the way to dinner, spending lunch hour in prayer or at noon Mass.  Some cut out all snacks between meals.  The money saved from not buying various things should be given to an apostolate or ministry serving the physically or spiritually poor.
29.  Prayer is like breathing – you have to do it continually.  But sometimes you need to pause and take a very deep breath.  That’s what a retreat is.  Plan a retreat this Lent.  It could be simply a half day, out in nature, or in a Church.  Or it could be a full day.  Or an overnight.  You can certainly read lots of things during your retreat or listen to lots of talks.  But try sticking to Scripture, the liturgy, and quiet as much as you can.  During or at the end of the retreat, write down what the Holy Spirit seems to be saying.
30.  Find a written biography of a Saint that particularly appeals to you, and read it during the Season of Lent.
31.  Instead of secular videos for weekend entertainment, try some videos that will enrich your spiritual life. Suggestions: Jesus of Nazareth, by Franco Zeffirelli, the Assisi Underground, Stoning of Soraya.
32.  While driving, turn off the secular radio and listen to religious music, gospels, talks etc.
33.  Try to visit with children to any orphanage, home for the aged, homes run by Sisters.  Try to see Jesus in each person there.
34.  Visit someone at a nursing home or in the hospital or sick at home.  Again, love Jesus in and through the suffering person.
35.  Is there a widow, old, dick person living in your neighborhood? If so, invite that person to your home for dinner, coffee, etc.
36.  View Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ during Lent. 
37.  Invite folks to view The Passion of the Christ with you, especially people whose faith is rather nominal, or who do not practice their faith, or who do not profess Christian faith at all.  Give them a copy of The Guide to the Passion.
38.  Spend some focused time with your spouse, strengthening your marriage.  Start praying together, or make praying together a more frequent occurrence.
39.  Spend some focused time together with each of your children.  Listen.  Pray.   Maybe even have fun.
40.  When Easter comes, don’t drop the new practice you have begun during the Season Lent!  Make a permanent feature of a deeper Christian life!

Edited :Fr David K Roy SJ


Ron Rolheiser OMI

A number of years ago, accompanied by an excellent Jesuit director, I did a 30-day retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In the third week of that retreat there's a meditation on Jesus' agony in the garden. I did the meditation to the best of my abilities and met with my director to discuss the result. He wasn't satisfied and asked me to repeat the exercise. I did, reported back to him, and found him again dissatisfied. I was at a loss to grasp exactly what he wanted me to achieve through that meditation, though obviously I was missing something. He kept trying to explain to me that Ignatius had a concept wherein one was supposed to take the material of a meditation and "apply it to the senses" and I was somehow not getting that part.

Eventually he asked me this question: "When doing this meditation, have you been sitting comfortably inside an air-conditioned chapel?" My answer was yes. "Well," this wise Jesuit replied, "no wonder you aren't able to properly apply this to your senses. How can you really feel what Jesus felt in his agony in garden when you are sitting warm, snug, secure, and comfortable in an air-conditioned room?"  His advice was that I redo the exercise, but do it late in the evening, outside, in the dark, cold, subject to nature's elements, and perhaps even a little afraid of what I might meet physically out there.

He made a good point, not just for my struggle with this particular spiritual exercise but about one of the major deficiencies within contemporary spirituality. Simply put: Our prayer and spiritual quests are not enough connected to nature. For all of our good intentions and hard work, we are too-platonic, too much trying to have our souls transformed while our bodies sit warm, safe, and uninvolved. The physical elements of nature and our own bodies play too small a role in our efforts to grow spiritually.

This is the major critique that Bill Plotkin, an important new voice in spirituality, makes of what he sees happening in much of Christian spirituality today. From our church programs, to what happens in our retreat centers, to the spiritual quests people more deliberately pursue, Plotkin sees too little connection to nature, to the sun, to storms, to the wilderness, and to the desert that Jesus himself sought out.

Plotkin, who doesn't work out of an explicitly Christian perspective but is sympathetic to it, runs a wilderness center out of which he directs people who are searching spiritually. One of the things that his center offers is a wilderness quest. People are offered the option of going out into the wilderness for some days alone, taking very little to protect themselves from what they might meet there. While sensible precautions are taken and prudence isn't irresponsibly bracketed, the people doing these quests nonetheless often find themselves pretty vulnerable to the elements and battling a good amount of fear.

And the quests are effective mainly because of that. Real transformation often happens and it is very much attributed to the battle that the one doing the quest had to wage in the face of fear and the physical elements. Plotkin's book, Soulcraft, contains a number of powerful testimonies of people who share how what they experienced in the wilderness - real exposure and real fear - led to real transformation in their lives. For something to be real it has to be real!

Jesus knew that and went on his own "wilderness quest", 40 days alone in the desert where, as the Gospels tell us, he did his own battle with "the wild beasts". We read accounts in the Gospels too of how he spent whole nights outside, alone, praying. It's no accident that his struggle to give his life over takes place in a garden and not in an air-conditioned church.  Beautiful church buildings have power to transform but so too do the sun, storms, the wilderness, and the desert. It's good to seek out both places, and lately Christian spirituality has been too negligent of the latter.

And it not just the things in nature that batter us and cause us fear to which we need to expose ourselves. Nature also waters the earth. There are few things in life that can induce the joy we can experience by drinking in nature. As the Canticle of Daniel (3,57-88) so wonderfully celebrates it, many things in nature nurture the soul and fill it with life: the sun, the moon, the stars, winds, fire and heat, cold and chill, dew and rain, ice and snow, light and darkness, lightening and clouds, mountains and hills, seas and rivers, plants and animals. Each of these can trigger special memories and special joys, if we stay awake to them.

We need to let nature touch more of our bodies and our souls, both for our spiritual health and for our health in general. For something to be real it has to be real!

Courtesy: www.ronrolheiser.com 

Let's Do Lent - 40 guidelines

Let's Do Lent
by Victor M. Parachin

"EACH YEAR, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving," observed Pope Benedict at the beginning of his Message for Lent 2008.

The season of Lent is specifically designated to offset spiritual complacency and increase spiritual rigor. It is a time of soul searching and soul refinement. Here are 40 ways to make the most of Lent, one for each day of the Lenten season.

Day 1: Begin with the three 'Rs'. On the very first day of Lent, Renew your commitment to spiritual disciplines; Reflect on your spiritual life over the preceding year; finally, Respond by taking corrective steps where there are deficiencies.

Day 2: Read Matthew 25:35-46. Study this teaching of Jesus carefully. In it Jesus reminds followers that all people are children of God; that each person we encounter is to be treated with consummate dignity, respect and love. This is especially true for those who are marginalized by society: the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," Jesus said.

Day 3: Increase your acts of mercy. Here's a simple prayer to guide you on this path, "Dear God, give me merciful eyes so that I never judge by appearances, but see only what is beautiful in others; give me merciful ears which turn away from all gossip; give me a merciful tongue which offers words of praise and encouragement; give me merciful hands than I may reach out to the wounded with love; give me merciful feet which will walk toward those in need so that I may assist them."

Day 4: Offer arrow prayers. These are brief, once sentence prayers, offered throughout the day for different people and various matters - Be with this retail clerk. Lift my colleagues' spirits today. Bless my family. May I be a source of joy at work. May I handle this difficulty with calmness and kindness.

Day 5: Meditate. "Be still and know that I am God," writes the Psalmist (46:16). Meditation is the hallway which leads to a closer connect with God. Spiritual writer James Allen noted, "Jesus brooded upon the Divine Immanence until at last he could declare 'I and My Father are one'."

Day 6: Fast. In the past, many Christians practiced fasting during Lent. Restore this practice by going without meals one day. If that's too much, consider skipping just one meal. A gentle fast like this will refresh your memory that many people on the planet go hungry day after day. One fast day in Lent will serve as a reminder of the bounty you enjoy on a daily basis. 

Day 7: Let nature be your spiritual director. "My profession is always to be alert, to find God in nature, to know God's lurking places, to attend all the oratorios and the operas in nature," wrote Henry David Thoreau.

Day 8: Identify a personal weakness. Write down one thing you'd like to change about yourself. Think about ways you could make that change during Lent. Of course, pray for the strength to do it.

Day 9: Identify a personal strength. On the other side of the same piece of paper listing your personal weakness, write down a personal strength. Think about ways you can increase that virtue and then put it into action throughout the Lenten season. It's always a good discipline to minimize a weakness and maximize a strength.

Day 10: Strive to be more like Job. This Old Testament man had virtues which more people need to model, "I rescued the poor who cried for help and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow's heart sing... I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy. I took up the case of the stranger." (Job 29:12-16)

Day 11: Resist temptation. In Luke 4:1-2 it is reported that Jesus was "tempted by the devil" for forty days. Be like Jesus. Resist a temptation. Remember William Shakespeare's insight, "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Another thing to fall."

Day 12: Slow down. Quit rushing from task to task, from place to place, from person to person. Build pauses into your day to renew and revitalize your spirit. When you engage in a task, do it more slowly and more mindfully. When you are with a person, give that individual your undivided attention.

Day 13: Pray for people who irritate you. These are the ones you don't really like, the ones whose mere appearances annoy you. Pray for them to be blessed, to be happy, to be loved. You may be surprised how that kind of prayer changes you and your attitude toward the irritating people in your life.

Day 14: Focus on being more rather than having more. Spiritual adviser Billy Graham notes: "We are slaves to our gadgets, puppets of our power, and prisoners of our security. The theme of our generation is: 'Get more, know more, and do more' instead of 'Pray more, be more, and serve more'."

Day 15: Follow the advice of Saint Paul. In 1 Timothy 6:11-12, the apostle writes, "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness." Work at cultivating those qualities more and more in your life.

Day 16: Donate to the poor. Write a larger than normal check to a charitable group which serves the poor. As you write the check, pause to pray asking a special blessing upon those served by that organization. If you are not able financially to do this, then do an early spring cleaning of your closet and donate clothing you haven't worn recently to charity. As you pack those give away items, pause to pray that they will be a great joy and blessing to the recipients.

Day 17: Speak your love. Say "I love you" to family members. Then, spread your love by saying to someone outside of your family, "I love you." If you have love for them in your heart, bring that love onto your lips. Far too many people go through their entire lives not knowing they are loved by others. Do your part to let others know of your love for them.

Day 18: Mend little rips and tears in your relationships. That advice comes from Brenda Shoshanna, author of 365 Ways To Give Thanks. "Is there someone you haven't called back for a while? Or someone else with whom you never made that luncheon date, although you promised to do so? Have your been putting off a visit?" she asks. Shoshanna reminds people that "unfinished business in our relationships can become little rips and tears, making the fabric of the relationship less sturdy with time." The solution: mend those rips and tears by making overdue calls, scheduling the visit, arranging the lunch.

Day 19: Seek forgiveness. Speak to someone you've hurt, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and seek their forgiveness.

Day 20: Offer forgiveness. Think about an individual who has hurt or offended you. Simply forgive. You don't have to tell the person you've done this, but just forgive, let it go and move on.
Day 21: Examine your goals. Do they line up with your faith and values? Be certain your goals focus energies in a positive direction.

Day 22: Listen carefully... especially to someone who disagrees with you. Try to listen without reacting or judging what is being said to you. As you do this you'll discover that the issue becomes much clearer and cleaner.

Day 23: Apologize. "A sincere apology can have enormous power," writes Lewis Richmond in his book Work As A Spiritual Practice. "Can you think of opportunities in your workplace where an apology would help? It is human nature to imagine that your hurts are more in need of salving than others' wounds," he notes. Richmond reminds readers that an apology is not only healing but reveals personal strength and maturity. "To apologize means that you are strong enough to give something up, to move some positive energy out of your domain toward someone else."

Day 24: Focus on inner peace. "Keep peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others," said Thomas A Kempis. Let your thoughts, words and actions all evolve from a place of inner peace and tranquillity.

Day 25: Reflect on Daniel in the lion's den. The young man, Daniel, survived a night in the lion's den protected by the strength of his faith. Let yourself be inspired by Daniel's example. Have faith in God, do what is right, maintain courage to remain true to your values and ultimately all will be well for you.

Day 26: Smile more. And complain less! Meditate on these few lines from author unknown, "A smile costs nothing but gives much. It enriches those who receive without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he cannot get along without it, and none is so poor that he cannot be made rich by it. Yet a smile cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give".

Day 27: Inspire yourself. Read an uplifting story. View a film which conveys spiritual depth. Study an inspiring passage of scared scripture.

Day 28: Be an angel. In biblical times, angels frequently appeared bringing good news. Be an angel carrying a good message to someone.

Day 29: Cultivate gentleness. Bradford Keeney, author of Everyday Soul, explains, "Gentleness values the softly spoken word, the tender touch, the warm embrace, and the kind, approving gesture. When we are in the presence of holy people, it is the power of their gentleness that moves us the most... It is their consideration of others that brings forth their fullest presence."

Day 30: Chart a new course. Ask yourself, "When was the last time I did something for the first time?"

Day 31: Walk on water. God always calls you beyond your abilities. Though it may seem that God is calling you to do the impossible, step out in faith. The walk of faith is nothing more than a call to walk on water.

Day 32: Ease the suffering of another person. Spend time with someone who is grieving or who is hospitalized or who has been wounded by life. Be fully present with compassion and love.

Day 33: Say grace. Before eating, pause to offer thanks for what you will enjoy. Express gratitude for the many workers it took to produce your meal - the farmer, the harvester, those who delivered the product to market, the grocer, the clerk who checked you out, etc. There is a Buddhist custom which acknowledges that it takes 72 labourers to produce one meal.

Day 34: Experience more joy. Author Sam Keen advises, "As you go through the day, become a spy in the kingdom of joy. Look for signs that strangers you meet are enjoying themselves, and actually or vicariously join them."

Day 35: Be willing to serve. "Have your tools ready; God will find you work," wrote Charles Kingsley.

Day 36: Keep your word. It's better to be viewed as hesitant, uncertain and indecisive than to make a promise or commitment and not keep it.

Day 37: Spend time alone. Here is wisdom from writer William Arthur Ward, "Practice the art of aloneness and you will discover the treasure of tranquillity. Develop the art of solitude and you will unearth the gift of serenity."

Day 39: Offset fear with faith. When intimidated recall and repeat these words of the psalm writer, "The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid." (Psalm 118:6)

Day 40: Look beyond Lent. Think about and plan for ways that you will continue the spirit of Lent after Easter!

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