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Brief History of Lent

(Reflections on the meaning and observance of Lent in preparation for the feast of Our Lord's Resurrection.)

Written by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. for the Marian Catechist in 1989

It seems certain that a Lenten season preceding Easter goes back to the time of the Apostles. The length of time varied. But by the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), which was the first general council of the Church, Lent is to be observed for forty days.

The number forty has a long biblical history: The forty days' fasts of Moses, Elijah and especially Our Lord in the desert.

During the early days of the Church, the observance of fast was very strict. One meal was allowed per day and, even in that meal, meat and fish were forbidden. By the fifteenth century, the one meal was taken at noon.

Gradually an extra collation was allowed in the evening.

The present legislation of Canon Law is as follows:

All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church (Canon 1250).
Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Canon 1251).

According to the apostolic constitution of Pope Paul VI (1966), "the law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening."

Although not strictly obligatory, the observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended by the Church. This recommendation applies to the Marian Catechists.

One statement that is new in the Code of Canon Law declares that "pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast (eighteenth year completed) and abstinence (fourteenth year completed) are educated in an authentic sense of penance" (Canon 1252). This provision certainly applies to Marian Catechists who are in a position to educate young people "in an authentic sense of penance."

Spirit of the Lenten Season

There are two guiding principles for the observance of Lent. During this season, the faithful are to grow in their love of Jesus Crucified, and they are to practice extra penance for their own and other people's sins. Both aspects of Lent deserve some explanation.

Love of Jesus Crucified. The spirit of Lent is the spirit of Christ Crucified. Therefore, whatever enables us to better understand Christ's Passion and Death, and deepens our responsive love for His great love toward us should be fostered during the Lenten season. Some recommendations:

  1. Meditation on the Gospel narratives of Christ's Passion.

  2. Spiritual reading of books like Goodier's Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Abbot Marmion's The Way of the Cross, Edward Leen's Why the Cross?, Fulton Sheen's Seven Words on the Cross.

  3. Recitation of prayers like Soul of Christ Sanctify Me.

  4. Besides making the daily Way of the Cross, encouraging others to make the Stations at least on Fridays during Lent.

  5. Having some symbol of Christ's Passion, like the crucifix or picture of the crucifix within easy eye vision to remind us of the Passion at odd moments of the day.

  6. Having some short aspiration which is recited (at least mentally) a few times during the day, like, "My Jesus Crucified," or "Heart of Jesus, obedient unto death, have mercy on us."

  7. Occasionally reciting the Litany of the Precious Blood.

  8. Spending some extra time before the Blessed Sacrament, asking Our Lord to grow in the understanding of His continued Passion now in the Church, which is His Mystical Body on earth!

  9. Making an occasional entry into one's spiritual journal about, "How much the Passion of Christ means to me."

Reparation for Sin. In practicing penance, we should keep in mind that there are two levels of reparation we are to practice, for our own and other people's sins. We are to expiate the guilt incurred by failing in one's love for God. And we are to repair the harm done by disobeying the will of God.

On the first level, our penance should be the practice of a deeper and more generous love for God

On the second level, our penance should strive to endure some pain in order to expiate the sinful pleasure that is always the substance of sin. This can take on a variety of forms, and no two people are the same in this matter. The following are merely examples.

Copyright © 2000 Inter Mirifica

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