The Season of Lent – it’s history, meaning and object

The Season of Lent, it’s history, meaning and object

By Dom Bernard Hayes, O.S.B.


In the Mass of Ash Wednesday, my dear brethren, the following words of the prophet Joel are read: “Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting, in weeping, and in mourning. . . . Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, gather together the people, sanctify the Church” (Joel ii.).

The great fast of Lent has been proclaimed, and the trumpet sounds throughout the Church of God, calling the people to forsake the false joys of earth and to be converted to their God with all their heart. The voice of the trumpet proclaims: “Let fasting take the place of feasting, weeping of mirth, and mourning of joy.” What, my brethren, is the object of this season which comes so harshly into the ordinary course of our lives? Whence did it come? Is it necessary for us now, or is it cherished merely as an interesting historical survival? We have a right, my brethren, to be satisfied on these points, for Lent makes large demands upon your generosity; and when we must put ourselves to grave inconvenience, we all like to know that it is for good reasons.

I propose, therefore, my brethren, to explain this season of Lent, to show its object, and to prove its necessity.

We get the word “Lent” from the old Anglo-Saxon language; Lenten-tide meant Spring-time, and “Lent” the Spring fast. In Latin this season is called “Quadragesima,” which means “fortieth,” and expresses the number of the days of the fast. This number recalls to our minds that Jesus Christ was led by the spirit into the desert and fasted forty days and forty nights (Matt. iv.).


The Church wishes each of her children, in imitation of Christ, to spend a like period each year in penance and recollection. Her discipline of penance is mainly under the form of fasting. Fasting has been defined as an “abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself, as an expiation for sin, and which, during Lent, is practiced in obedience to the general law of the Church.” She insists upon penance, because it is clear from the Scriptures that God demands it, and in choosing this form of it, the Church was not guided merely by natural wisdom, but by the evidence in the Old and New Testaments that this was acceptable to God.

Let us take some examples. In the prophecy of Jonas we read that “the word of the Lord came to Jonas, saying: ‘Arise and go to Ninive, the great city, and preach in it the preaching that I bid thee.'” And Jonas arose and, entering into the city, cried: “Yet forty days and Ninive shall be destroyed.” And the men of Ninive believed in God: and they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least. . . . And God saw their works that they were turned from their evil way: and God had mercy with regard to the evil which He had said He would do to them, and He did it not” (Jonas iii.). In the Book of Deuteronomy we have another striking example of God’s wrath being turned aside by penance and prayer. Moses recalls to the memory of the people how, in Horeb, they had provoked God to wrath and would have been destroyed for their idolatry. After having received the commandments upon tables of stone, he came down the mountain and found the people adoring the golden calf. “And I fell down,” he says, “before the Lord, forty days and nights, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for all your sins which you had committed against the Lord, and had provoked Him to wrath. . . . And I lay prostrate before the Lord forty days and nights, in which I humbly besought Him that He would not destroy you as He had threatened” (Deut. ix.).

Thus throughout the Old Testament we find that: when men had sinned they strove to appease the wrath of God by bodily penance and by humble prayer. The same gospel of penance is preached by the second Elias, St. John the Baptist, who preceded the first coming of the Son of God upon earth, as Elias himself is to come “to restore all things” before Jesus Christ comes to Judge the world. We read in St. Mark’s gospel that: “John was in the desert, baptising and preaching the baptism of penance unto remission of sins” (Mark i. 4). He spoke to the multitudes in strong words; he did not suit his words to the degenerate views of his day. “Ye offspring of vipers,” he cried, “who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruits worthy of penance” (Luke iii).

Is it surprising then, my brethren, that the first public lesson given to men by our Saviour Himself is the lesson of penance? Nay, should not we be surprised if He, who had sent as His herald one “clothed with a garment of camel’s hair, and whose food was locusts and wild honey,” had lived a life in which penance found no place? Therefore, after His baptism by St. John in the Jordan, He withdrew into the desert wastes and for “forty days and forty nights” He tasted neither food nor drink. The years of His public life also were filled with penitential labors. All the day He worked for His people and the nights He spent in prayer. His lot in life could have been so different; but He chose suffering as his portion, as St. Paul testifies : “Having joy set before him, He endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. xii. 2). His test of a true follower is: “Can you drink of the chalice that I shall drink?” (Matt. xx. 22).

Once when our Lord had foretold His approaching passion, St. Peter said: “Lord, be it far from Thee, this shall not be unto Thee.” Who, turning to Peter, said: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.” Then Jesus said to His disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Matt. xvi. 22). On another occasion Christ said: “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke xiii. 3). Not only did our divine Lord insist upon penance in general, but He wished that particular form of penance, known as “fasting,” to be practiced under the New Law: “The days will come,” He said, “when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast” (Matt. ix. 14). Such was the teaching and example of Christ. What, my dear brethren, was the result? When the Apostles went forth to win the pagan world, to convert it to Christ, they preached salvation through penance. St. Paul told the Corinthians that the message he brought from God to men was an unpopular one: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the gentiles foolishness” (l Cor. i. 23). St. Peter, in his first epistle, wrote: “Christ, having suffered in the flesh, be ye armed with the same thought: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sins” (I Pet. iv. i).


Many of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church say that the Apostles decreed that the great solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal fast; and that, in remembrance of Christ’s fortydays’ fast in the desert, they instituted Lent. To begin with, there was no uniform way of observing it. But the faithful for forty days gave themselves to fasting and prayer in imitation of their Master. In the beginning, the Christians adopted the same customs of fasting as were prescribed in the Old Law, by which one meal only was allowed on fasting days, and that after sunset. This rule seems to have been strictly observed, and for the first eight centuries the one meal allowed was taken after Vespers. Moreover, abstinence from flesh meat was everywhere looked on as essential to fasting, and for many centuries even eggs and milk-meats were not allowed. In the ninth century we notice relaxations appearing in the ancient discipline. The one meal began to be taken at three o’clock in the afternoon, the hour of None, instead of after Vespers. In the tenth century this has become universal and has been allowed, but the hour of vespers is now also earlier and is still before the meal. At the close of the thirteenth century vespers and the fasting meal were at midday. When the repast was taken so early, it is not surprising to find that a “collation” was found necessary in the evening. The use of this word comes from the Rule of St. Benedict. There we find a distinction made between the fasts of the Church and the fasts of the Rule: On days of monastic fast the dinner was at three o’clock, the hour of None, instead of after Vespers. In the summer and autumn months, when the work in the fields was heavy and the heat fatiguing, the abbot was allowed to give to the monks a small measure of wine before Compline, during the reading of the “Conferences of Cassian.” Now the Latin word for “Conference” is “Collatio”; and from this name the evening refreshment on fasting days came to be called “Collation.” After the ninth century the use of meat during Lent began; at first only milk-meats, in the northern countries. Councils and Popes ever strove to keep the old austerity, but dispensations became necessary; dispensations became general customs, and customs were tacitly sanctioned, until in the seventeenth century the use of these meats seems to have become universal. Since the so-called Reformation, the history of the Church has been one long fight against laxity and self-indulgence. Even amongst those of the household of the faith, how little reverence remains for this holy season, and how little of the spirit of penance! We Catholics, my brethren, must not be influenced by the spirit of the world; it is our high vocation to be as a leaven of righteousness amongst men. We must set the example to a self-indulgent world of that penitential spirit which is the mark of the followers of Christ.

Although the history of Lent seems to be one of gradual relaxation, yet we must never forget that there is an unwritten history of strict observance and of generous self-denial. The relaxations were no revolt against the Cross, as was the case with Luther and his agents, who rejected all ancient discipline and gave men freedom for their inclinations. But as the rising tide, inch by inch, possesses itself of the whole beach, so the waves of luxury have ever risen higher and ever extended their conquests, till it seems as if they will engulf what little remains of the spirit of Christian self-denial. Can we then, my brethren, do without the barriers which the Church opposes to the advancing tide ? No, my brethren, we cannot! If we wish to keep alive in this corrupt world the true spirit of Jesus Christ, we must return to the simplicity and strictness of earlier days. The example of our forefathers, whose noble inheritance we now possess, must make us loyal to the Church’s laws of penance.

True penance, my brethren, does not consist merely in mortification of the body, but in that of the soul also. Sin is committed by the will, and therefore it is just that the will as well as the body should make atonement. Before bodily penance can be of any avail for sanctification, it must be accepted by the will. The effects of the lash upon a criminal is very different from those of a saint’s discipline. The former subdues the body, but makes the will rise in revolt, whilst the latter brings both body and soul to the feet of God. The Church, therefore, aims not only at subduing men’s bodies by her penitential laws, but she strives to fill their souls with the spirit of penance. This she does by means of her liturgy. She opens this holy season by sprinkling ashes upon the heads of the faithful. As Job sprinkled his flesh with ashes, and as King David, after sinning grievously, mingled ashes with his bread in order to appease God’s anger and indignation, so the Christian recalls his sins and humbles himself before God; he recalls that even though God has forgiven the sin, yet the punishment of sin, death, has yet to be endured. So he bows his head that the ashes may be put upon it, and with humble heart he hears the sentence of death pronounced upon him: “Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return!” Formerly it was the custom to approach barefooted to receive the ashes, and we read of a Pope of the twelfth century, surrounded by his cardinals, walking barefooted from the church of St. Anastasia to that of St. Sabina, where the Ash Wednesday ceremony was to be performed. The prayers which are used at the blessing of the ashes and during the Mass of the day, if said with fervor, will fill us with consciousness of sin, with the sense of our weakness and need of God’s help, with feelings of humility and with a vivid realization of the imminence of death. Everyone, my dear brethren, should have a Missal and carefully follow the beautiful words of the liturgy in order to acquire the sentiments of heart suited to this season.

In order that she may still more impress us, the Church banishes from her services all the pomp by which she loves to honor God, and all signs of joy. The eye sees on every side signs of penance; the ministers in the sanctuary are clad in somber purple; there are no flowers upon the altar. The ear hears no longer the joyous Alleluia, or the hymn of the Angels’ choir, the Gloria in Excelsis, or the glad tones of the organ. At the conclusion of the great liturgy of the Mass, the deacon no longer dismisses the people with the words “Ite, Missa est,” but he says, “Benedicamus Domino,,” “Let us bless the Lord,” as if to encourage the people to persevere in prayer even when not present at the sacred mysteries.

On the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church allows a ray of joy to pierce the gloom, in order to encourage her children to persevere. This is called “Laetare” Sunday, from the first word of the Introit of the Mass. Flowers appear upon the altar, the organ is once more heard, and rose-colored vestments may be used. The note of joy and hope sounds through all the words of this day’s liturgy. The Sunday ends, and the clouds close over once more, and we are again sitting clothed with sackcloth and ashes, bemoaning our sins and appeasing the anger of our injured God.


Up to this point, my brethren, in order to rouse in us sentiments of contrition and humility, the Church has turned our eyes upon our own sinfulness, and upon death the punishment for sin. She has tried to wring from our stony hearts tears of compunction and humiliation by the contemplation of our own misery. She now turns our eyes upon Jesus Christ, the Victim of Sin; she recalls to us in all their details the sufferings He underwent to atone for our sins. During the closing two weeks of Lent, which are known as Passion-tide, the great drama of redemption is set before us as if it were actually happening. By this annual commemoration of the Sacred Passion, she gives to us a higher and purer motive for doing penance for our sins. She would have us “think diligently upon Him who endureth such opposition from sinners against Himself, that we be not wearied, fainting in our minds. For we have not yet resisted unto blood striving against sin” (Heb. xii. 2-4). What could make us more ready to run to the fight proposed to us than the example of that Innocent Victim, who came “to reconcile all things unto God, making peace through the blood of the Cross?” (Col. 1. 20). By the liturgy of Passion-tide the Church tries to create in us the “same mind as was in the Lord Jesus,” so that, as He willed to suffer and die to save us, we on our part may generously undergo that penitential crucifixion of our lower natures which God demands of us before He will receive us. There could be no more vivid meditation on the Sacred Passion than the liturgy of Holy Week. The original tragedy is reenacted for us, and to those who devoutly follow the steps of our suffering Lord the week is one continuous soul-moving contemplation.

On Palm Sunday we accompany Jesus from Bethania to Jerusalem. We join the shouting throngs which greet Him as the Messias. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. O, King of Israel! Hosanna in the highest.” We take palms in our hands, and with psalm and antiphon accompany Jesus in His triumph and hail Him as the “King of Israel.”

The ceremony is divided into three parts. The first is the blessing of the palms, and the prayers used are beautiful and instructive. The palms are distributed and should be kept by the faithful during the year for a protection to their persons and their dwellings. The second part is the procession. The priest represents Christ, and the palm branches are carried in memory of those which the people bore in their hands and threw down before our Saviour when He made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the return of the procession you will notice, my brethren, that the church door is locked and the procession cannot enter; voices are heard singing within the church, and those outside take up the refrain. The locked door is a symbol of the gates of heaven shut against sinful men; the voices are those of the angels who greet the Redeemer: “Glory, praise, and honor be to Thee, O Christ, our King, our Saviour!” The door is struck with the cross and opens, representing the opening of heaven to men by the victory of the Cross.

Though this is a day of triumph, yet during the Mass, the third part of the ceremony, the account of the Passion from St. Matthew’s gospel is read. This reminds us of the fickleness of the Jews, who will in a few days clamor for their King’s life-blood. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Passion is read from the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke.

On Maundy Thursday all the touching circumstances of the Last Supper and the institution of the Blessed Sacrament are reproduced in a most striking and moving form. To honor the Blessed Sacrament, Mass is celebrated with all possible splendor. The color of the vestments is white, the altar is decorated, and with joyous ringing of bells and with the glad tones of the organ the Angelic Hymn, Gloria in excelsis, is sung. When this is finished the bells and the organ are once more silent. The Mass goes on as usual, but we may notice one significant omission: the Kiss of Peace is not given, out of detestation for the crime of Judas who, on this day, profaned this sign of friendship. Throughout the world loving souls will gather round the altar to receive their paschal Communion on this day, making some reparation to Jesus for the treachery of which He was the victim.

The service of Good Friday is most realistic. During the first part of the service lessons from the prophets are read which refer to the Passion, and then the account of the Passion itself is read from St. John’s gospel. Prayers follow, in which the Church, joining herself to Jesus upon the Cross, intercedes for the necessities of the whole world. The Celebrant now takes off his chasuble and holds aloft the cross for the veneration of the people. Unveiling the upper part of the cross, he sings: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” Then both priest and people, kneeling, sing “Come let us adore.”

Unveiling the right arm of the cross and raising his voice, the priest once more sings the salutation of the cross and holds it up for the veneration of the faithful; and still a third time is this repeated, when the cross is completely uncovered. The people then advance and kiss the feet of the crucifix, whilst the choir sings the touching “reproaches.” On this day so vivid is the remembrance of the sacrifice of Calvary that the Church will not permit the renewal of it by consecration. On Maundy Thursday two Hosts were consecrated, one being consumed by the priest and the second kept at the “altar of repose.” Today the Sacred Host is brought in solemn procession to the High Altar, and during the Mass of the “Pre-sanctified,” which has no consecration and differs in many ways from the ordinary Mass, the Host is received by the Celebrant. Vespers follow immediately, and on their completion the altars are stripped and the church is left desolate. In former days the faithful spent Holy Saturday in mourning for their Lord, who lay in the tomb awaiting His resurrection. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not offered up, not even a Mass of the Presanctified. But since the eleventh century the character of the day has changed: it is the precursor of Easter, and the Mass has come to be considered an anticipation of Sunday and of our Lord’s Resurrection rather than the sacrifice of Holy Saturday, when His mangled body lay in the tomb. It it therefore a part of the feast of Easter, and its liturgy does not come within the scope of our subject.

It is impossible to speak adequately here of the liturgy of this great week. I have sketched for you, my brethren, in outline only, some of the ceremonies. By devoutly following the liturgy we are united to our suffering Lord, our hard hearts are broken by the dread words of the prophets and of David. We hear Jesus Himself disclosing His anguish of soul, the Church of God denouncing the deicides, the ruin of Jerusalem foretold. We have wounded the Sacred Heart by our sins, we have crucified our Saviour and we must weep in humility and penance if we would escape the sentence of condemnation.


And this, my dear brethren, was the spirit of more fervent days. In earlier times the whole Christian world gave itself up to this spirit of penance. It was to those ages so full of faith, the “great week,” or the “painful week.” We read of fervent souls pushing their fasting to the utmost limits of human endurance. We are told that some would fast the whole week, others for two, three, or four consecutive days, and it was the common practice to abstain from food from the evening of Maundy Thursday till Easter Sunday morning. All work was suspended, the people mocked to the churches and followed with loving hearts and tearful eyes each step of their suffering Lord as set forth in the liturgy. The prisons were flung open, slaves were freed, abundant alms were given to the poor, and war and quarrels were forgotten.

What an immense influence upon society the liturgical life of the Church and her penitential discipline must have had. Alas, my brethren, the world has in its foolish pride and self-sufficiency swept aside as “out-of-date” all national customs springing from this active remembrance of the Incarnation. The “Reign of Christ,” which was universal at these solemn times, has been abolished. Christ is dethroned and the idol of false “Liberty” is raised up in His place. Men used to do penance for their sins, to weep over the wounds of their Saviour and strengthen themselves against their proud and sensual temptations. Now men withdraw all barriers and allow the flood of human wickedness to devastate the world. What can save modern society, my brethren, except the salutary discipline of penance imposed by the Church, and the humility of heart and remembrance of the Redeemer taught by her liturgy?


Let us, therefore, my dear brethren, be encouraged generously to undergo the salutary penance of this holy season. We shall gain the proper dispositions of soul by keeping close to Jesus Christ, and by living the life of the Church, thinking her thoughts, using her words, and filling our hearts with her sentiments; and these we shall find in her liturgy. If this labor of the purification of the soul is painful, we must remember that “God chastiseth every son that He receiveth,” and that we cannot share the glories of His Resurrection unless we follow Him in the days of His penance and His passion.


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