What is the purpose and origin of Lent? Is it merely a product of Church Tradition or is there actually a biblical precedent for this practice? Please join me on a virtual pilgrimage to Egypt, Turkey, Rome, and the Holy Land, as we search for answers.
For the Catholic faithful, Lent marks a 40 day preparation for the Easter celebration of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. Easter, therefore, marks the high point of Christ’s pascal mystery (death, resurrection and ascension into heaven). Keeping our eyes focused on the three parts of this mystery, we can hope to gain new insights into the purpose and role of Lent.
The word Lent, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lenten”, actually means “spring”. Lent, therefore, recalls our own spiritual springtime, experienced during Baptism and celebrated during the liturgical Easter Celebration. This new springtime also points to the regenerating graces of forgiveness we receive during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A third, and often overlooked, aspect of this new springtime can be found in our own spiritual journey, and that of the entire Church, towards eternal participation in Christ’s resurrected glory. Therefore, the sum of these three characteristics points to the fullness and purpose of Lent: preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and His second coming at the end of time. How do we get ready for both of these events? Simply put, we repent of our sins through Baptism and Penance, and renew our faith and personal holiness through prayer, fasting and the performance of good works.
Now that we know the purpose of Lent, what of its origin? Since the earliest time period in Church history, we find indications of a spiritual preparation for Easter. Although the early Lenten practices varied, there did seem to be a more regularized approach after the faith’s legalization in 313 A.D. In fact, in 462, Pope Leo the Great preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.”
But why 40 days and does this Catholic tradition really have anything to do with the story of salvation revealed in Sacred Scripture? The answer is yes, for Christ, Himself, spent forty days in the Judean desert after His Baptism. There, He prayed to the Father, fasted, resisted sin, and defeated Satan. Through His baptism, Jesus highlighted our own personal pathway to freedom. During His three year ministry, Jesus established the Church’s sacramental system. Included, was the authority to bind and loose sin, and heal the wounds of separation, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After His resurrection, Christ, once again, spent 40 days with His disciples, instructing them to walk in holiness, witness the Gospel (the good news of the resurrection), and await the transformative powers of the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven mark the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to the nation of Israel. The number forty has always held special significance throughout the Old Testament. It’s allegorical representation of spring time, and the life giving waters of Baptism, are indicated in Noah’s forty days in the Ark. On Mount Sinai, Moses prayed, fasted and contemplated the face of the Lord for forty days. There, he received God’s laws for personal and communal holiness (Ten Commandments). Finally, Joshua and the Israelite nation waited forty days prior to their triumphant entry into the Promised Land. What do these Old Testament events have in common with our own personal Lenten journey? Both mark a forty day time period of preparation, and both indicate our struggles and personal advancement towards life eternal with God and His Only Begotten Son, the Resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.
Above: Mount Ararat in Turkey, where the Ark of Noah is believed to have landed.
Below: Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from the Lord.
Closing 3:00 p.m. prayer for Divine Mercy.
Eternal Father, I offer You, the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and the sins of the entire world.
For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the entire world. (Repeat two more times).
Jesus, I trust in You.
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