by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker
Sometime around the great American festivals of Super Bowl Sunday and Groundhog Day begins the quintessential Catholic season of Lent.
The exact date is contingent on the date of Easter, which is set as the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox.
If that isn’t confusing enough, the full moon is calculated to be the 14th day of the lunar month.
Suffice to say, Lent begins this year on Feb. 22.
What makes Lent so Catholic is that, unlike Advent, most Protestant denominations haven’t usually celebrated it as a special season. (Although that is changing with even some evangelicals now “doing Lent.”)
But almost since the beginning of the church, the six weeks starting with Ash Wednesday and concluding with Holy Thursday have been set aside as a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for the Easter celebration.
It is the time, as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010, that “the church invites us to a sincere review of our life in light of the teachings of the Gospel.”
As we enter into this sacred season, let’s take a look at some of its special characteristics.
By any other name
In most countries, the name for the season reflects the Latin term “quadragesima,” which refers to the fortieth day before Easter — as in the Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, and Italian quaresima. Our word “Lent” comes from the Anglo- Saxon words “lencten,” meaning “spring,” and “lenctentid,” or “springtide,” which is also the word for March, since most of Lent generally falls during that month.
The Tuesday before Lent officially begins is a traditional time of festivity before the Lenten fast begins. The term “Mardi Gras,” French for “Fat Tuesday,” refers to the custom of eating all the eggs, butter, milk, cream, and meat in the house so they didn’t go to waste during the time of fasting.
In England, in particular, the dairy products were used to make pancakes, giving rise to the nickname Pancake Tuesday. In other parts of the world, it was customary to go to confession on this day (to be “shrove” of one’s sins), contributing to the other common name, Shrove Tuesday.
Today, Mardi Gras often marks the end of the “Carnival season,” a time of often ribald celebration starting on Epiphany. The most famous Carnivals are held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and New Orleans.
A bit of history
As early as the year 200, Christians were using the days before Easter for spiritual preparation, primarily prayer and fasting. St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I about the length of the Lent fast, saying some people fast a day or two, others for 40 hours, indicating that such practices began “in the time of our forefathers,” which is commonly understood to mean the time of the apostles.
By the fourth century, St. Athanasius was preaching about a 40- day fast and by the mid- fifth century, Pope St. Leo was instructing that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the apostolic institution of the 40 days.”
It’s safe to say that by the Council of Nicea in 325, Lent was clearly established as a 40-day period of discipline prior to Easter. Over the centuries, church regulations regarding the exact nature of the Lenten fast have changed from fasting for six days of the week (Sundays were always excluded) and abstaining from all meat and dairy products through- out the entire 40 days, to the present regulations established after the Second Vatican Council.
Fasting and abstinence
The laws of the church maintain that:
- All Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Fri- day, and all the Fridays of Lent.
- Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- Fasting means taking only one full meal and two other smaller meals that don’t equal a full meal.
Why 40 days?
The number 40 holds a special significance in the Jewish faith. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, it rained for 40 days (and nights) while Noah was in the ark, Jonah spent 40 days admonishing the people of Nineveh to re- pent, and the Jewish people spent 40 years wandering in the desert.
Jesus himself spent 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry. Christians soon adopted the number 40 for the days of intense preparation for those new converts who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
When counting the days of Lent, Sundays have never been included because each Sunday is to be considered a “mini- Easter” commemorating the resurrection of Our Lord.
Therefore, fasting and other disciplines are not appropriate on the days that celebrate our salvation.
Give it up!
Traditionally, Catholics “give up” something for Lent — candy, alcohol, cigarettes or other “vices” being common. The idea behind the practice is the development of self-discipline and self-denial in order to strengthen one’s moral resolve and build character. While self-sacrifice is an important component of Lenten devotion, sometimes a more positive spin is put on it by encouraging posi- tive actions like attending daily Mass, saying the rosary or performing acts of charity instead of simply “giving something up.”
Regardless of whether you give up or add on, all Catholics are encouraged to do something special— and at least a bit challenging — dur- ing these special days