The Liturgical Cycle
Think Fast! It’s Lent.
As we embark on this penitential season, here are a few “fun-facts” (can the facts be called “fun” during Lent?) that may make its observation more fruitful.
1. Who or what is a Lent?
Derived from the word lencten, which is Anglo-Saxon for springtime, Lent is the 40-day season of preparation prior to Easter which begins on Ash Wednesday.
2. Why is it 40 days?
Next to the number seven, the number forty occurs most frequently in the Bible. It represents a period of testing or judgment. Lent’s duration of 40 days reflects other times of trial, testing and hardship found in the Scriptures:
- The story of Noah tells of rain falling on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days before beginning their missions.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt.
- It took the spies 40 days to search out the promised land and bring back fruit.
- Goliath taunted the Israelite army in the morning and evening for 40 days.
- Jonah warned the Ninevites they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry.
In Church history, penitents—usually guilty of public scandals like murder or adultery—were temporarily expelled for the entire season in imitation of God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve. They were sent away with the admonition “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They lived isolated from families, friends and parishioners for the 40 days of Lent. This temporary separation gave us the word quarantine, whose root is Latin for the number 40 and can still be heard in the Spanish word cuarenta.
3. Fasting vs Abstinence
Also of biblical origins are the Lenten customs of fasting and abstinence.
“They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”—Acts 14:23
Although often used interchangeably, fasting refers to the amount of food consumed, while abstinence describes the type of food denied such as meat on Fridays. These forms of physical self-denial are practiced during Lent, as are other pious customs.
4. Why are the statues covered during Lent in my parish?
Another Lenten custom is the draping of statues and crucifixes in purple cloth as a sign of mourning. This symbolically hides the heavenly glory realized by the saints. Occurring on the fifth Sunday of Lent, the covering of the sacred images adds to the sense of introspection and contrition.
The roots of the veiling of statues during Lent can most likely be found in Germany where, beginning before 900, it was customary to cover not only statues and images, but the entire sanctuary including the altar with a cloth.
The cloth itself was called the Hungertuch (literally hunger cloth but often translated as Lenten veil). The draping concealed the altar entirely from the faithful during Lent and was not removed until the reading of the Passion at the words “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.”
5. My parish prays the Stations of the Cross during Lent. How did this custom originate?
The Stations of the Cross originated during the crusades when it was popular to visit Jerusalem to follow the steps to Calvary. After the Holy Land was captured, pilgrimages became a very dangerous affair. A desire arose to reproduce these holy places in other lands as a substitute pilgrimage.
It soon became popular to have outdoor markers indicate not only the scenes in Christ’s path to Golgotha, but also the actual distances from location to location. Crude markers eventually gave way to elaborate artwork depicting the events of Jesus’ trial, torture and execution. By the mid 18th century, the Stations were allowed inside the church and served as a focus for Lenten devotions.
The Stations help the participant make a spiritual pilgrimage to the major scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death. Prayers are said until the entire route is complete, enabling the faithful to more literally take up their cross and follow Jesus.
6. Why is there no Gloria or Alleluia sung at Mass?
The Church teaches by absence as well as by presence, and Lent is a time of great loss. Eating is diminished and some foods forbidden—a fast of the body. Music is scaled back, bells are silenced and the Gloria and Alleluia are dropped from the liturgy—a fast of hearing. Statues are veiled and flowers and decorations disappear—a fast of sight. Depriving the senses helps the faithful maintain focus on the internal condition of the soul rather than on externals.
Does your parish have any other Lenten customs? Does your culture have a unique Lenten tradition? Did you decide to “give up” something for Lent or “take something on”? Share and let’s learn together!