The season of lent is a time of prayer and penance when we prepare to celebrate Easter, the central and most important feast of the Christian calendar. The word lent is from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means spring. This time of prayer and penance has a ‘twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for Baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the Paschal Mystery.’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 109)
The earliest mention of the 40 day fasting period before the Pascal feast was at the Council of Nicea (325). Before this, it was not uncommon to fast in preparation for the paschal feast. The emphasis in the early Church was not so much on the fasting, but rather on the spiritual renewal that the preparation for Easter demanded. As time went on, great emphasis was placed on the fasting, and the spiritual preparation somehow became less important. This idea of lent still seems to be the case today. Fasting at this time was very strict, allowing only one meal a day – meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products were forbidden. During the 13th century the ban on fish and dairy products was released. In the last few centuries the ban on meat was lifted, firstly for Sundays and then for weekdays. The only exception to this was on a Friday. In 1966 Pope Paul VI, said that abstinence was to be observed on Ash Wednesday, and on all Fridays, except where a feast day falls on a Friday. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, fasting as well as abstinence were to be observed.
Previous to Vatican II, lent was seen as a time of prolonged meditation on the Passion. There was a special emphasis on the physical sufferings of Jesus. However Vatican II states that ‘the minds of the faithful should be directed primarily toward the feasts of the Lord where the mysteries of salvation are celebrated throughout the year,’ (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy 108). Lent is a time when we should ponder and meditate on our baptismal promises, and also on the penitential aspect of the season. ‘During lent, penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social,’ (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy 110).
In the Gospel for the first Sunday of lent, we are reminded of Jesus’ time in the desert. The desert was a place where the great prophets went to prepare themselves for the ministry which they were to undertake. During this season of lent, we too should enter our own desert to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Pascal Feast, which is the centre of our faith. How can we as followers of Jesus prepare ourselves for our own ministry? Maybe we could begin by looking at our lives and seeing if there is an area within us that we can change, where we can make a difference. Forgiveness of sins begins in ourselves firstly, only when we have forgiven ourselves can we begin to forgive others. If we can do this is this season of lent then our spring will lead us to summer, where the fruits of our desert experience will blossom, where we as Christians can make a difference in our own lives and in our society.