Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return
– Genesis 3.19
So I recently made my *cough* “long-awaited” *cough* return to public speaking at the young adults group at my local Church. I was asked to speak about Lent, so I decided to chat a bit about what Lent is all about and why it should be a time of great hope for the Church.
I absolutely love public speaking. It is really fun and exciting!
Anyway, apparently my talk was pretty good, so I’ve included the text below.
Ps. For those interested, I gave this talk at a meeting of the Young Militia of the Immaculata (YMI), based in the Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Parish Kellyville. The YMI is an international Catholic movement under the patronage of Mary Immaculate for young Catholic adults (18-35) seeking to deepen their faith and grow in their baptisimal commitment to serving Christ and His church. It is also an opportunity for fellowship and fun. Meetings are held at the Shrine of the Holy Innocents at 8 Greyfriar Place, Kellyville on every first Saturday of the month. This usually involves adoration, praying the rosary, a discussion (7pm-9pm) and then a social outing afterwards.
If you want more information about the YMI or if you’re interested in coming along let me know and I’ll put you in touch with a member of the Executive!
Lent – The Season of Hope
By Joshua Whicker
History of Lent
It is believed that the idea of lent can be traced back to the apostolic age. In the very early days of the church, the ‘Easter celebration’ was celebrated each and every Sunday, with congregations often marking this with a number of days of fasting immediately prior to Sunday.
In Church History, Eusebius quotes from a letter of St Irenaeus to Pope Victor, stating that there was a controversy over how long Christians should keep the fast, prior to Easter, stating that whilst some fasted for only one or two days, there were others who fasted for a full 40 days prior to the feast. Irenaeus lived at the end of the 2nd century, so we can see that although the exact number of days was still not set in concrete, Christians were entering into a time of preparation and fasting before the celebration of the Easter season.
Lent becomes more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. St Athanasius called on his congregation to embark on 40 days of fasting prior to Holy Week, which was marked by more intense fasting immediately prior to the celebration of the Easter season. Pope St Leo is recorded to have exhorted the faithful to “fulfil with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days”, reminding the faithful of the apostolic origins of the time of lent. By the end of the fourth century, the Tradition of lent, a 40-day preparation for Easter was well established within the church. It was also customary that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were the key spiritual exercises during this 40-day period.
As the season of Lent continued to develop, there was conjecture of which days of the week were to be kept as fasting days. In the church at Jerusalem for example, the people kept Monday to Friday as days of fast, leaving Saturday and Sunday as rest days, therefore making lent a period of 8 weeks. In the church at Rome however, they fasted six days a week, with Sunday as the rest day. As time went on the church adopted the Roman practice of six days of fasting with Sunday as a rest day over a six week period, with the preceding Wednesday celebrated as Ash Wednesday, bringing the period of fasting to 40 days.
Similarly, the rules of fasting varied. Some abstained from all meat and animal products, whilst some made some exceptions for things such as fish etc. One meal was allowed in the afternoon for sustenance. Unlike today, where we are only bound to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the church was bound to fast for every day, except Sundays. As history has progressed, modifications have been made to Lenten sacrifices, and now we are only required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, yet we are called to partake in some form of Lenten sacrifice.
Scriptural Basis for Lent
Throughout the entire Old Testament, we see references to times of repentance for the people of Israel. In Tobit, the Angel said to Tobit and Tobias “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving and righteousness”.
Most notably in the Old Testament, both the Exodus out of Egypt and the forty years in the desert is direct precursors to Lent. Through the forty years in the Wilderness, God was preparing the Jewish people to enter the promised land, and it was only when they were ready that, under the leadership of Joshua, they crossed the Jordan and entered into the land promised to Abraham.
Jesus’ 40-days of fasting in the desert also forms much of the scriptural basis for the celebration of Lent. As Jesus was preparing for his earthly ministry through fasting in the desert, so do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Easter.
What is lent today?
So, today, lent is a 40-day season of the church. It is a penitential season set aside by the church so the church as a whole, and Catholics individually, can prepare to celebrate Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. It is also the time when catechumens prepare themselves to either be baptised or received into the Church at the Vigil Mass on Easter Saturday. Obviously, lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes with the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday. On Ash Wednesday, as we are marked with ash on our foreheads, we are called to “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel”. It is a time where we unite ourselves with Christ’s sufferings and his 40-day fast in the desert as we turn back to God and prepare for Easter.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving
The beautiful thing about lent is that it isn’t some wishy-washy type of thing that is difficult to get your head around, nor is it focused on ‘emotions’ or feelings. In reality, it is a basic formula, which is simple and easy to understand and follow. We are called to follow three key spiritual practices throughout lent; prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These forms of interior penance “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (CCC 1434). These three practices are deeply Scriptural and have their roots not only in the Tradition of the Apostolic church, but in the practices of the Jewish people as well. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his Church to be “Perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. He then goes on to advise the crowd to practice prayer, fasting an almsgiving in true humility. These are the three key acts of penance the Church calls us to take up during the time of Lent.
Prayer is a gift from God. St Therese of Lisieux said that “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned towards heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy”. True prayer is born out of a humble heart, and humility is the foundation for good prayer. St John of Damascene says that “Prayer is the raising of the hear and the mind to God.” By praying we are seeking communion with God. We are seeking to enter into relationship and build our friendship with God.
How do we pray? How do we improve our prayer life, especially in the busyness of life? St Thomas Merton says that the key here is to take the time! We often say certain things are important to us, however the sure fire way to see what really matters to us in our lives is how much time we dedicate to certain things. Not that I’m saying we have to spend hours an hours of life in prayer; for many that is impractical and not what God is necessarily calling them to enter into.
What it might mean however is that for the rest of lent taking a bit of extra time to pray the rosary daily, attend daily mass, or at least attending weekday mass once if you usually only attend on Sunday. Another great way is to spend time weekly in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Every Friday, Adoration is available in the Parish Church after the morning mass until 7pm mass, as well as after Monday 7pm Mass. It might mean taking up a devotion. It might be a devotion to Our Lady, to a patron Saint, or a confirmation saint etc. It might be the praying of the Angelus daily, or he Divine Mercy Chaplet. It might be using your time in the car to pray. Fr Robert Barron says that a car can be like a “monastic cell”, so if you are driving to work or uni or whatever, tune the radio off and take them time to sit and be with God in that moment, especially if you’re stuck in traffic! There is no set right or wrong way to pray. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the LORD.” God wants us to seek him with a humble heart. Sr Hilda Scott of the Benedictine Nuns often says that if there are hundreds of different ways to love, there are hundreds of different ways to pray. So don’t be afraid and find a way that works for you!
Catholics aren’t puritans. We don’t see desire or pleasure as inherently flawed. As Fr Robert Barron says “We like the pleasures of the body”; it’s good to taste beautiful food; it is good to feel loved by another person; it is good to hear music which is pleasing to the ear etc etc. What can happen, however, is that often the pleasures of the body can become too domineering, and our desire for them can go beyond our inward desire for God and relationship with him. So during lent we fast. We fast from our sensual desires with great purpose, to allow the deeper hunger in us to arise, a hunger for God and relationship with him. That’s the way our souls are ‘wired’ to work; that when you suppress certain desires, other deeper desires come forth and emerge. The CCC says “Fasting helps us to acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (CCC 2043).
In terms of what we are bound to follow in our fasting, the Church has become a lot more ‘relaxed’ in this area over the years. Whilst previously everyone of able body was required to fast for the entire period of lent (except for Sundays and certain Feasts), we are now only bound to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Whilst this is the case, we are nonetheless encouraged to chose to give up something. We are encouraged to especially give up something that might take us away from God; something that allows us to ‘give in’ to our earthly desires. We should take time to prayerfully reflect on our own lives and our desires, and identify those that can take us away from God. It might be eating too much food, coffee, sweets, Facebook, YouTube, Gaming, the internet, activities etc. We are encouraged to highlight those things that might get in the way of our relationship with God, and fast from those as a sign of penance.
The Church is a community. Since the early days of the Church, God’s faithful people have gathered together in communion with one another. In Acts it says “And all who believed were together and had all things in common”. St Paul often talks about the Church as the body of Christ. This isn’t a metaphor; it is the reality that through our baptism that we become part of this mystical body which is the Catholic Church. St Thomas Aquinas said, “I have the right to private ownership, but not to private use”. Everything we have comes from God. It is through his providence, one way or another, that we have all that we have. This doesn’t just extend to our belongings, but also our gifts and talents as well. We are called to use all that we have for the sake of the common good. So in Lent as an act of penance we give alms.
Again, there are many practical ways that you can do this. It might be that when you pay for something at the shops or what not, any change you receive in coins goes into a project compassion box. Give $5 to a homeless person when you walk past them, no questions asked. Another fantastic idea is to, when buying something, identifying the item that you can afford, and then purchase the next model or option below that, giving the difference to the poor. This might be when buying a car, a new outfit, getting a medium instead of a large at Maccas, Not buying entrees at griddle tonight (haha). This is a tangible way that we can give alms. We can also give alms by assisting those who are less fortunate. That might be through volunteering at a Vinnies soup kitchen, visiting the sick or elderly, it might be through training as a Catechist and teaching SRE classes in Public schools. There are many ways that we can practice almsgiving.
Why do we do this? Why do we practice acts of penance during Lent? Why do you participate in Lent at all? Lent is a time of journeying. It is not an end in and of itself. It is a journey we embark on as an entire Church, a journey of preparation, a journey of repentance. The term repent means to not just feel great sorrow or contrition for an act, but it means to turn away from that act and to turn towards the light which is Christ. So as we enter into Lent, we reflect upon our lives and identify where we may have turned away from Christ, and as ashes are place on our foreheads we resolve to repent; to turn away from our sinfulness and follow the Gospel.
Lent is also a time of preparation, as we journey through lent towards Easter. We prepare ourselves to welcome Christ at Easter time as we celebrate his resurrection. This is vitally important. We cannot view Lent as the end. It is but a period of Preparation for something so much greater. The Catechism says, “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “Sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” (CCC 1430). Through Lent, Christ is not calling us to simply ‘go through the motions’, but to encounter him through this ‘interior repentance’.
It is important here that we do not put the cart before the horse if you will. Whilst previously you would take on sackcloth and ash as an outward symbol of the call to penance, Christ empowers us to fast, pray and give alms as an expression of the interior penance within the Christian. Further to this, we also celebrate lent to unite ourselves with the 40 days of fasting endured by Christ in the Desert, where he was tempted by the Devil. So we can see that not only is Lent a time of repentance, it is also a time for preparation for the coming of Christ at Easter.
Where does it take us? Hope!
So Lent takes us towards Easter. Easter is the most important celebration of the Church. It is through the paschal mysteries that Christ has defeated death and won for us eternal life. This is a cause of great hope! We, as Christians are a people of hope. Pope Benedict always spoke so strongly of the Church as a Church of Hope. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict talks of faith-based hope. We don’t have an illogical, random hope, but it is hope based in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is in Christ alone that our hope resides (CCC 1681). We are hope filled, because it is by hope that we desire eternal life in heaven (CCC 1817). Hope is what helps us through the trials of life.
As we journey through Lent, we remember that Lent isn’t about the doom and gloom. It isn’t about looking sad and dishevelled and yelling at everyone because you gave up coffee. Rather we look forward, not wishing away the time of Lent, rather we keep our eyes on Christ, the cause of our hope and our joy, as we journey towards Easter. Let us prepare our hearts through interior penance and conversion to greet the risen Christ on Easter day.