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THE OBSERVANCE OF LENT
From the Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter
The penitential season of Lent is the period of forty weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is a season of the Church year, which commemorates the forty days Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before he began his public ministry of preaching for repentance. Six Sundays are within the season; the last, Passion Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Thursday begins the Triduum (three days) before Easter day, which includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
The Church has devoted a period of time to prayer and fasting as a preparation for the liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Christ and the celebrations of the feast of the Resurrection, Easter Day, since very early times. In 604 Pope Gregory I defined Lent as "The spiritual tithing of the year," a time of solemn spiritual and physical preparation for our own acceptance of salvation through Christ's sacrifice. (Ordinary tithing meant to give a tenth part tithe of one's goods to God. Lent's forty days represents about a tenth of the year.)
The word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "lencten," referring to the lengthening of days in the Spring. Lent, of course, is an English word. In Latin, still the official language of the Catholic Church, the entire season is known as Quadrigesima, or "forty."
The season of Lent
calls Christians to imitate the forty days of prayer and fasting of Jesus. The
period of forty days is significant. When God punished the sinfulness of mankind
by the Flood, the rain lasted forty days and forty nights. Moses led the Hebrew
people out of bondage in Egypt, but they wandered forty years in the desert
before reaching the Promised Land. Elijah fasted and sought God's will on Mount
Horeb for forty days. Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in forty days.
In the Eastern Churches the penitential season before Easter begins before the forty days, and eventually the Roman Church also anticipated the season for several weeks before the actual beginning of Lent.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the pre-Lenten penitential season began on the Sunday three weeks before the beginning of Lent, called Septuagesima. The word Septuagesima (seventieth) was supposed to be a reminder of the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people, and thus of our captivity in sin, although this Sunday was actually only sixty-three days before Easter. The succeeding pre-Lenten Sundays were called Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Just as in Lent, violet vestments were worn and the Alleluia was omitted from Mass.
The liturgical changes initiated by the Council removed this anticipated pre-Lenten penitential season, however, and the Church returned to the earlier practice of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday. The Sundays between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent are now in the liturgical season called Ordinary Time.
The date of Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal (spring) equinox. So, unlike Christmas, which is celebrated on the same day each year, Easter and feasts and celebrations of the Church year related to Easter are called "movable feasts." The movable feasts include the Ascension (forty days after Easter), Pentecost (fifty days after Easter), and Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. (Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, or the Sunday before Advent, is also a movable feast, although its date is not determined by the date of Easter.)
Carnival Mardi Gras
Carnival is from the Latin Carnevale or "farewell to meat," and it is a time of joyful feasting and fun. The practice of celebrating carnival probably began in ancient times when the Sunday a week before the beginning of Lend was called Dominica Carnevala, or "farewell to meat Sunday."
The official day of "farewell" is Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday." The day was also called "Butter Tuesday," because the last of the animal products had to be used up sometimes in fried pancakes. It is also known as Shrove Tuesday, which may refer to the diet being deprived or "shriven" of meat; or possibly that after the customary confession in preparation for Lent, one is "shriven" of sin. The famous celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans has become largely a secular festival, its religious meaning having been virtually obliterated in the revelries. And the word "carnival" has long since lost its religious significance.
Carnival celebrations are not confined only to Mardi Gras, however. In some parts of the world, the carnival season extends several weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. Even today, the carnival celebrations, especially in the Caribbean, South American and some European countries, begin on January 6 (Epiphany) and end on midnight before Ash Wednesday.
Celebrating Carnival with family, friends and parish community helps children and adults to understand and appreciate "that wonderful, eternal rhythm of high and low tide that makes up the year of the Church: times of waiting alternate with times of fulfillment, the lean weeks of Lent with the feasts of Easter and Pentecost, times of mourning with seasons of rejoicing," as Maria von Trapp said, in Around the Year with the Trapp Family (p. 85). The Carnival season has been a time of "blowing off steam," of entertaining guests in the spirit of Christian hospitality and generosity, and of partaking of rich food and drinks and sometimes of excess, as the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans vividly displays.
One of the reasons for the development of the Carnival season and the emphasis on revelry and merry-making was the very rigorous practice of Lenten fasting during the Middle Ages and beyond. During Carnival, housewives of the past rid their pantries of all butter, lard, eggs, bacon, cream and cheese in preparation for the Lenten fast. From the Middle Ages until the late Renaissance, eating all animal products except fish (which were considered bloodless) was forbidden.
Now, however, the Lenten fast and abstinence from meat in most parts of the world is confined to Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, and in modern times abstinence from meat does not include other animal products (eggs, milk and cheese, for example).
The custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is still maintained in many places. (Pancakes require many eggs and much milk and butter in their preparation.) To this day there is an annual pancake race on Shrove Tuesday between the village of Olney, England and the small town of Liberal, Kansas. The outcome of this international contest, which originated in the story of a "war-bride" who was a native of Olney where the traditional pancake race originated several hundred years ago, usually appears in the national news on Tuesday before the beginning of Lent.
Suggestions for Family Activities on Shrove Tuesday
Families can make Shrove Tuesday a spiritual time of preparation for Lent by going to confession where this is possible (a sort of spiritual "pantry cleaning.")
Decide on Lenten sacrifices appropriate to the age of each child, reminding them that our souls need this spiritual exercise to gain strength for living as Christians, just as our bodies need exercise to remain healthy. Our sacrifices are like a gift offered to God, and all real gifts "cost" the giver something. (No fair "giving up" hitting your sister for Lent!)
Our Lenten spiritual preparation should not be confined to "giving up" things; we should "take on" things extra prayers, for example, especially family prayers. If your family has not already established some form of family prayer, Lent is a good time to begin. We are prepared to do something special during this season. Praying together as a family, in our busy times, is difficult, so do set aside some time this Lent to do it. Fathers and mothers can plan together what form this will take whether as simple as saying the Angelus every night at dinner, or as elaborate as saying the Daily Office together in the evening.
A gathering of family and friends to celebrate on last time before midnight when our Lenten fast officially begins. A potluck dinner with each family bringing an especially delectable dish is one suggestion.
Children can make simple decorations or funny hats and help make pancakes for the evening meal. You might decorate with balloons , which would be popped with a satisfying bang at the end of the festivities. Whatever the decorations, they should be taken down at the end of the party.
An impromptu neighborhood Mardi Gras parade of children, with fancy paper hats and decorated wagons and tricycles are fun and fairly simple, if you're up to organizing it and the weather permits.
Make a "Way of the Cross" poster for keeping tack of the sacrifices children make during Lent. On a large sheet of poster paper, draw a crooked path. Mark it into 46 sections (the forty days of Lent plus the Sundays color the Sundays to distinguish them). At the top of the path draw a cross. When the children have done their task or sacrifice for the day, they can place a sticker of color in each day of the "journey to the Cross."
At midnight (or just before bedtime, if small children need to go to bed) the family kneels down and says one "Our Father" together and then rises, saying, "I wish you a blessed season of Lent." In the morning they will begin their observance of Lent in anticipation of Our Lord's Passion and Resurrection.
Mardi Gras Menu Suggestions
New Orleans French:
Crepes or beignets with quiche or egg/cheese main-dish casserole.
Anglo-American: Pancakes or doughnuts with sausages, bacon or ham slices, scrambled eggs; fruit sauces, other fillings, syrups, etc.; honey-butter, whipped cream, cream cheese.
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast with suggestions
for family observance of the season
"The main current of Lent must flow through the interior man, through hearts and consciences. The essential effort of repentance consists in this. In this effort the human determination to be converted to God is invested with the predisposing grace of conversion and, at the same time, of forgiveness and of spiritual liberation."
This reflection by Pope John Paul II in Lent of 1979, recorded in a collection of his meditations, The Light of Christ, indicates the attitude with which we should approach our observance of this penitential season-a season, which begins, with a sign of repentance so ancient as to be almost lost in antiquity, and continues with penitential action equally ageless.
Putting ashes on our heads as a form of penitence is a practice inherited from Jewish tradition. In Old Testament times, fast days expressed sorrow for sins and the desire to make atonement to the Father. Ashes, for Jews and Christians alike, are a sign of repentance, sorrow, and mourning. The King of Nineveh believed the prophecy of Jonah and fasted forty days wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes to save the city, and ordered the people to do so, too [Jonah 3:4-10]. Jeremiah calls Israel to "wallow in ashes" of repentance [Jeremiah 6:26]. Abraham speaks of being unworthy to speak with God because he is "but dust and ashes" [Gen 2:7]- being man, he is created from dust. Jesus also refers to this symbol in Matthew 11:21, "Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
The ashes imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our unworthiness and sinfulness sinfulness which corrupts and stains us and leads to death (we return to the dust from whence we came.) Ashes remind us of our original sin and our need of redemption-our need to be cleansed of sin and made worthy of Salvation. This is why the priest says, as he imposes ashes on our foreheads, "Remember, O Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." [Genesis 3:19].
We cannot appreciate God's infinite mercy if we do not realize we need mercy. We cannot understand salvation apart from our recognition of our need to be saved, rescued, from something-namely our sin which otherwise separates us forever from God. Ashes remind us of this need. When we wear the ashes on our heads, we also acknowledge the sacrifice of Christ, who forever substituted his own death for the "burnt offerings" made by Old Testament priests to atone for the sins of the people.
On Jewish fast days, or days of atonement, the penitent customarily wore sackcloth (burlap), placed ashes on his head, and went barefoot. These traditions associated with penance continued to be observed by the early Christians, although Jesus warned against ostentatious public displays of penance [see Matthew 6:16-18.] In the New Testament, fasting had similar significance, but fast times were also a time of intensified prayer and willingness to abide by the will of Christ and the Father who sent Him.
We also fast because of 1) our sorrow at the loss of the Lord: "The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away, and then shall they fast" [Luke 5:33-35]; 2) our intention of giving our Christian life more depth and more seriousness of purpose. Pope Leo the Great says in his forty-second sermon: "While men are distracted by the many cares of life, their religious hearts are necessarily defiled by the dust of the world;" and 3) the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter: for the renewal of our baptismal vows, and for Easter Communion.
According the Didache, a first-century document that is an important record of early Christian beliefs and practices, Christians were to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Emphasis on seasonal fasting became more pronounced in the second and third centuries when a stricter fast was observed from Good Friday until Easter. Eventually this shorter fast developed into the forty-day fast.
In 1099, Pope Urban II called the first day of Lent Feria quarta cinerum or Ash Wednesday. During the early centuries of the Church only persons who had committed grave sins received ashes and were asked to do public penance, which usually lasted until Holy Thursday when they were reconciled to the Church through confession and the reception of Holy Communion. The custom, as early as the fourth century, was to "quarantine" (from the word for "forty") or separate the penitents from the rest of the community during the forty days of Lent. Ashes were a sign of this separation. The penitential quarantine applied to poor and rich alike.
Fasting and Penance Today
In the same Lenten message quoted above, Pope John Paul II said, "Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy. Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth. Contemporary man seems to have lost, to some extent, the flavor of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one's interior being. Our civilization, especially in the West, closely connected as it is with the development of science and technology catches a glimpse of the need for intellectual and physical effort. But he has lost the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is man seen in his inner self. The whole period of Lent since it is a preparation for Easter is a systematic call to this joy that comes from the effort of patiently finding oneself again. Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort."
The Code of Canon Law states that Fridays throughout the year and in the time of Lent are penitential days for the entire Church. Although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction, in the Church, between fast (limiting food to one full meal a day, with two smaller meals allowed) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat.) Abstinence from meat on Fridays as the universal form of penance on all Fridays is no longer mandatory. We may choose another way of observing the Church's requirement for acts of penance on Fridays, but we are not to neglect it, either.
Since the change in the abstinence rules, some people have become confused about the requirement to observe penitential days. As a result, the discipline of fasting (or abstaining from meat) or any form of regular penance has all but disappeared. Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) has sharply declined, as well.
Both fast and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For the record, rules of the Church in the United States about fasting and abstinence in effect since 1966 state that:
"Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole." (Ref. Canons 1249-1253, Code of Canon Law)
Fasting and abstinence, which foster self-discipline and self-denial and other beneficial spiritual exercises, are strongly encouraged as voluntary practices at any time of the year. But it will be the responsibility of families, as the "domestic Church," to foster this spiritually energizing practice, not only during the required Lenten days, but at other times as well. To fast willingly, in reparation for our own sins and for others, can transform not only our own lives, but also the life and vitality of the larger community.
As Pope Leo I stressed in the 5th century, the purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity, which joins us to Christ-an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice. Fasting can heighten our understanding of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church, and of our total dependence on His love and mercy.
Farewell to Alleluia and Gloria
During the penitential seasons of the Church, the Gloria and the Alleluia are not said or sung. The Gloria is sung only at the Mass on Holy Thursday, usually with great ceremony, organ and sometimes trumpets, and often with the ringing of bells. After the singing of the Gloria, musical instruments are to be silent until the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil. (Catholic families might imitate this solemn silence by not playing instrumental music in their homes at this time.)
In the Middle Ages and throughout the 16th century, the "burying" of the Alleluia was a solemn ritual on Septuagesima Sunday. A procession of children carrying a wooden plaque bearing the word "Alleluia" laid it at the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, covering it with a purple cloth. It remained there until Easter at the Gospel procession, when the plaque was carried as the priest intoned the three Alleluias before the Easter Gospel. In Paris, a straw figure inscribed with the word was carried out of the choir at the end of the service and burned in the churchyard.
Although the practice of literally removing the Alleluia from the Church may have disappeared, even today in some parish celebrations of the Easter Vigil an Alleluia card is carried in procession and placed in front of the altar during the singing of the first Alleluias before the Gospel for Easter.
The hymn, Alleluia, Song of Gladness (see Music section) and the one, which follows, date from the early 9th and 10th centuries; both refer to the farewell to the Alleluia in the liturgy.
From the Mozaribic Liturgy of Spain
Stay with us today, Alleluia,
When the morning rises,
thou shalt go thy way.
May the Lord be thy custodian, Alleluia.
And the angel of God accompany thee.
May the Lord keep thee alive
And protect thee from every evil.
The mountains and hills shall rejoice, Alleluia,
While they await thy glory.
Thou goest, Alleluia; may the way be blessed,
Until thou shalt return with joy.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Suggestions for Families
Lent is a time for each of us to increase our knowledge of the "faith that is in us" in order that we can fulfill our vocation as Christians to extend this rich blessing of faith to others. We accomplish personal renewal and revitalization of our faith through penance, prayer and instruction.
The value of self-denial must be learned early in a person's life. Lent provides an excellent opportunity to teach our children the necessity of self-denial in our permissive society.
The whole family will observe the Lenten fast according to the Church. Fasting means restricting the food we eat, and also the size and number of meals. Abstinence means abstaining from eating meat.
Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday as well as on all Fridays during Lent. The strict fast for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday means that we will eat only one main meal on that day, with the other two being very light (and no snacking).
A food which symbolizes prayer and fasting is the pretzel (from the Latin word, bracellæ, "arms.") It is a traditional Lenten bread of very ancient origin. Early Christians made the bread from flour, salt and water only, shaping it to represent the folded arms in prayer, just as they are made to this day. The German tribes who invaded Rome called the bracellæ "brezel'" or "prezel". Pretzels are traditionally eaten throughout Lent, and in some places are especially associated with St. Joseph's Day [March 19] which usually falls within Lent. A recipe for soft pretzels follows:
Combine in a mixing bowl:
1 cup warm water
1 package (1 1 1/2 T) active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
Add and beat at least 3 minutes:
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp soft butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
Stir in 1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour and knead until the dough loses its stickiness.
Let the dough rise in a covered greased bowl until it is doubled in bulk (this is called "proofing" the dough). Punch down and divide it into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope and form it into a pretzel shape. Place the pretzels on a greased baking sheet and let them rise until almost doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 475°F.
In a large non-aluminum kettle, prepare a boiling solution of
4 cups water
5 tsp baking soda
With a slotted spoon, carefully lower the pretzels into the water and boil about 1 minute or until they float to the top. Return them to the greased sheet. Sprinkle them with coarse salt. (Sea salt or Kosher salt.) Bake the pretzels until they are nicely browned, about 10-12 minutes. Pretzels are best when eaten while still warm, but they may be stored in an airtight container for up to a week, or frozen. (Makes twelve 6 inch pretzels)
Special prayers and devotions.
Lent is an appropriate time to begin to establish some family prayer traditions -- beginning with our attending Church on Ash Wednesday, to receive the cross of ashes on our foreheads.
O Lord and Ruler of Life,
take from me the
spirit of idleness, despair, cupidity, and empty talking.
[Note: If you use this prayer with children, you might have to explain that "cupidity" is greed for wealth or power, not some little winged being from a Valentine!]
Joel 2: 12-14a
“Therefore, saith the Lord, turn ye to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him.”
Matthew 6: 16-21
“When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fasteth, anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but to thy Father, in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will reward thee openly. Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
For study and reflection
Families might develop a Lenten reading program (reading can replace some of the television shows we've given up for Lent.) Also, reading aloud from the Bible or from a Catholic classic every evening for half an hour can be a way of fostering family conversation about the Catholic faith.
Maria von Trapp suggests that "every year we should divide our reading into three parts: something for the mind, something for the heart, something for the soul." [p. 104] (We cannot regard mind, heart and soul as really separate, of course.)
The Holy Scripture fills all these categories. For example, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Wisdom and the Old Testament books of Law and History might be "for the mind"; Psalms, Job, and Song of Songs, "for the heart"; and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel other Old Testament prophets and the entire New Testament "for the soul." Following are a few other suggestions for each category, and other suggestions are in the bibliography section at the end of the Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter:
Something for the mind
Something for the heart
Something for the soul