The glory of these forty days
we celebrate with songs of praise;
for Christ, by whom all things were made,
himself has fasted and has prayed.
– Attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great
Today marks the beginning of the forty day period of penitence before the celebration of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection during the Paschal Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. It is forty days because of the forty days that Christ spent in the wilderness prayer, fasting and being tempted by the Devil immediately prior to the beginning of his public ministry.
The funny thing is that Lent is not actually forty days, by anyone’s calculations. If you count the number of days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) you get 46 (7×6+4). Now, most people do not count Sundays as days of Lent because technically every Sunday is a celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection and therefore a time of rejoicing. It’s the same reason that except for the highest of holydays, if a feast falls on Sunday, the Sunday celebration takes precedence or is moved (this year, the Solemnity of St. Joseph gets bumped forward to Monday because March 19th is a Sunday). If you subtract the Sundays, you get forty days.
But…then you run into the problem of the Triduum which is technically one giant feast and it’s own liturgical season. (Pay attention this year: there is no dismissal from the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and no greeting of the people at the Easter Vigil. It is one, three-day long liturgy.) So you would have to subtract the last three days of the forty day period and come up with thirty-seven days. Adding back the Sundays does not help because now we have forty-three days.
But I digress…
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. You would never know this because so many Catholics go to Mass to get ashes. Even Catholics who do not make it to Mass for holydays of obligation or even most Sundays, make it to Mass for Ash Wednesday. While that is kind of sad, a priest can use this opportunity to call those wayward Catholics in the pews (as well as the rest of us…we are all wayward in some way or another) to a deeper sense of repentance.
After all, that is really what Lent is all about: repentance. In the ancient times, those who wished to show repentance from sin would publicly rend their garments, put on sackcloth and sprinkle ashes in their hair. (As an example, this is what the people of Nineveh did in order to avert the destruction prophesied by the prophet Jonah) When the priest or minister puts the ashes on a person’s forehead, he does so with an admonition. The classic is “Remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is a warning of our own mortality that hearkens back to what God told Adam after he sinned in the Garden of Eden. This connection makes it a reminder that as St. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin are death” and that one day, we will die, and be judged for our sins. Now, is the time to repent, for we could be called before the judgment seat of God any day, no matter how young or healthy we might be.
More recently, priests and ministers have been offering a more straightforward (and less somber) admonition: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is taken from Scripture as well, as they are the words of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself as they preached the imminent Kingdom of God. It is a simple statement of what we are called to do during Lent, and the ashes on the forehead are an outward symbol of that.
The Real Point of Lent
To further our discipline, which is an absolute requirement to battle sin and, ultimately its author, most Catholics, during Lent, embrace some form of penitential practice, above and beyond what the Church obliges each and every able-bodied Catholic to do, under pain of mortal sin. While this often takes the form of a mortification of the flesh, such as giving up certain foods or sleeping without a blanket, it can also take the form of engaging in some sort of pious exercise such as praying the Rosary or going to daily Mass.
While I plan to do both of the aforementioned types of penitential practices, one thing I hope to accomplish this Lent is to write meditations on different aspects of Our Lord’s Passion. The Church provides multiple devotional frameworks for such meditations. Chief among these are the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the seven Last Words of Christ. Added together this only make twenty-six. Since, I would like to make this a devotional practice for Lent, I have decided to add enough to make it forty, primarily by also meditating on the Passion as seen by some of the players in it such as Malchus, Pontius Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, Dismas and Longinus. Adding meditations on the Sunday Gospels as well one of two one-offs on various subjects related to the Passion would bring that number to (more or less) forty.
I have tried to so something similar in the past and have always failed. I would very much like to succeed this year. I think success would be more likely if I knew people were actually reading these posts and gaining something from them. Therefore, I humbly invite you to take this Lenten journey with me, starting today.