No need to be cross about Lent

Lent didn’t begin as a season of guilt, and it shouldn’t be that way today either.
Our Faith

Memories of a Catholic boyhood. It is Ash Wednesday, and the choices about what to give up for Lent finally take effect. I remember that Ash Wednesday meant the beginning of things like no candy, no ice-cream sodas, and most difficult of all, six Saturday afternoons without a Hopalong Cassidy movie at the neighborhood theater. Such choices were made after a bit of comparison shopping (What are you giving up?) and not without a spirit of one-upmanship. We hadn’t absorbed much about Jesus’ command to do good deeds without parading them before others.

Some of the girls (it always seemed to be the girls who embraced the higher forms of asceticism) every year insisted, especially during class time when Sister could hear, that you had to give it up on Sundays too, even if your parents didn’t fast on Sundays. No candy is no candy for all of Lent, and I can remember the inner price I had to pay for the jellybean I ate one Sunday.

The purpose of all of this was to do penance for our sins. At that time my sins consisted mostly in not making my bed in the morning and other forms of “disobeying my parents.” Of course I mentioned those things in the confessional but somehow that wasn’t enough. Then there was that rampant form of recidivism (a word I learned only many years later, having to do with sins that one keeps committing with little or no intent to reform), namely, missing my morning and evening prayers.

It was fortunate that Lent began with a clearing of the slate. We all got ashes on the forehead at the morning Mass, and during the day we were marched over to the church again for Confession. So Ash Wednesday was kind of a double whammy.

We wore the ashes like a badge all day, and no one washed their face after recess. When we went up to the communion rail to get ashes, the priest would dip his thumb in the dish of ashes only once for every four or five people. I remember feeling cheated year after year, because I was never lucky enough to get the full black smudge that came with the fresh thumbful.


During the days just before Lent, many of our parents were calling the rectory to ask for a dispensation from the Lenten fast. Usually they tried to get hold of the young and modern-thinking assistant rather than the old pastor. In any case, the dispensation would be given only to working parents. A mother who stayed at home (which in those days was most mothers) was not considered a working parent and was expected to fast.

We would all have less meat in our sandwiches. Friday was, of course, a day of abstinence throughout the year, but during Lent Wednesday was a cheese-spread day as well. In case anyone should forget about the extra day of abstinence, there was a fish printed over the Wednesday and Friday dates on the Catholic calendar that hung in the kitchen.

Lent brought a few extra liturgical observances. The school day began with Mass throughout the year in any case, but during Lent more kids made the sacrifice of putting off breakfast until after Mass so they could receive Communion. The really fervent ones also went to Mass on Saturday mornings and came for the Stations of the Cross on Friday nights. And one must not overlook the kind of liturgy which was the first candy bar or ice-cream soda savored at the end of Lent, on Holy Saturday promptly at noon.

Easy come, easy go

Much of this has gone the way of nickel Hershey bars and 10-cent admission to the Saturday matinee. The season of Lent still exists, but it does not seem to command the kind of observance it once did. In 1966, as part of the reforms following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI lifted the canonical obligation of fasting from all days except Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This seemed to have two almost opposite effects. On the one hand, renewed emphasis was now given to positive deeds such as service to one’s neighbor rather than to the negative “giving up” of things. On the other hand, many Catholics have not found any specific practices of piety to replace the neat, tidy, and definite obligations of fast and abstinence. So for many people Lent seems to have lost its content.

The problem behind all this is that for over 1,000 years Lent was understood primarily as a penitential season characterized by fasting and abstinence, with all its adjuncts like giving up sweets or movies. The removal of the obligation of fasting said, in effect, that fasting is not the heart and soul of Lent. What is, then? Many Catholics were left in a kind of spiritual vacuum because they had no other way to understand Lent.


In case anyone should forget about the extra day of abstinence, there was a fish printed over the Wednesday and Friday dates on the Catholic calendar that hung in the kitchen.

Liturgical renewal leads Christians back to an older tradition regarding Lent. This new (or old) understanding of Lent exists clearly in current liturgical books, but what is in the books has only begun to touch the lives of the folks in the pews.

In a nutshell, Catholics are trying to move from Lent as a penitential season to Lent as a baptismal season—that is, a season that focuses on a refreshment of the Christian commitment which is rooted in baptism. Lenten piety is not simply a matter of taking on extra obligations or giving up earthly pleasures. It is a matter of becoming freshly attentive to the commitments which are already there and have been present since baptism. Doing penance may be part of this observance, but such penance is to be understood in the larger context of Lent as a time for savoring baptism and rediscovering what it means.

By the fourth or fifth century, the Lenten season had taken pretty much the shape that it has today. Since there was as yet no Ash Wednesday, the season began with the first Sunday of Lent, when the gospel describing Jesus’ 40 days in the desert was proclaimed (as it is today). The celebrant would talk about preparing for Easter as the goal of Lent, about removing the old leaven from daily life in order to make room for the new. The celebrant of an early Lenten service might speak in this way:

Beloved, it is a great and valuable thing in the Lord’s eyes when all of Christ’s people, men and women alike from every level of society, one in mind, gather together in worship and Christian duty. It is a great and valuable thing in his sight when a single purpose unites everyone in avoiding evil and doing good, when God is glorified in the deeds of his servants, and the author of all goodness is blessed in one great act of thanksgiving. The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are visited, and everyone seeks not their own good but that of their neighbor, by making the most of their own means to relieve the misery of others. (From a sermon of Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the fifth century.)

Then, as now, this is the tone for the season. It is a time to take stock of one’s responsibilities as a Christian, devoting oneself with renewed fervor to the works of mercy that should mark Christian life throughout the year. This is not a merely private venture. Lent is a church-wide event, a corporate effort. Whatever form Lenten renewal may take, the entire community is doing it together.

In a nutshell, Catholics are trying to move from Lent as a penitential season to Lent as a baptismal season—that is, a season that focuses on a refreshment of the Christian commitment which is rooted in baptism.

In the midst of the early Christians were the catechumens, who would be entering the final stage of their preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. They were living witnesses of the ideals of the entire community—ideals which perhaps have dimmed in day-to-day life. Each candidate had a sponsor, who would introduce that person to the community and accompany the catechumen throughout the preparation process.


At other times of the year, the Eucharist of the early Christians would normally be celebrated only on Sundays and great feasts. But during Lent there would be an opportunity to celebrate and receive Communion on many weekdays as well. The assembly would gather for the Eucharist on various weekdays at different churches throughout the area. The bishop would preside at the different churches and would preach on the liturgical readings, which always had to do with returning to the Lord, renewal, and the refreshment of baptism. Even if these early Christians happened to be busy on many of the weekdays, they would try to make time for some of the special celebrations, which also served as occasions to get to know the catechumens a little better.

Early Christians did not fast during Lent only. Devout Christians fasted on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the year, except during the Easter season. And the fast on those days was just as strenuous. It meant eating only one meal a day (the evening supper) and abstaining totally from wine and meat. There was no canonical obligation to do this; it was just something taken for granted as an integral part of an early Christian’s life. The philosophy that surrounded it was common to Christians and non-Christians alike: The body is the prison of the soul, and the only way to free the soul is to deny the body.

As the centuries passed, the catechumenate gradually disappeared and baptism became a private rather than community event. The celebration of Easter eventually lost its original baptismal focus. Adults and infants were baptized at any time of the year, according to individual need, and there was no longer a community of catechumens to give living substance to Lent as a season of baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal.

Ashes to ashes

The focus of Lent changed from baptism to penance and a 40-day fast became the essence of Lent. By the ninth century, Ash Wednesday had come into being as the beginning of a literal 40 days of fasting (Sundays were excluded) ending on Holy Saturday. Ash Wednesday was originally the day on which those who were to enter upon six weeks of public penance for grave sins were enrolled as penitents, with a ritual involving the imposition of ashes. But by the ninth century, the system of public penance had become obsolete and was replaced by the practice of frequent individual confession. All Christians began receiving ashes as a sign of their mortality and sinfulness, and the ceremony of ashes set the tone—penitential rather than baptismal—for the season that followed.

In the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, Ash Wednesday was kept as the traditional beginning of Lent. That day was a late, indeed the last, addition to the season. Though it had been retained as a compromise, the penitential focus of Ash Wednesday has now been put into a larger context. The liturgy of Lent is once again directed to baptismal preparation and renewal, and Easter as the goal of Lent has been further enhanced by the restoration of the Easter triduum, three days of prayer preceding the feast. In today’s liturgy, Good Friday is part of Easter, not of Lent. Lent ends and Easter begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. And of course the culminating moment of Easter is the celebration of the Easter Vigil, when the initiation of new Christians takes place.

Three obstacles tend to stand in the way of a renewed understanding of Lent. The first involves the lack of liturgical renewal in many parishes. Some pastors continue to preach on Lenten piety and penitential practices as though the Vatican II directives did not exist. In some places converts are still privately instructed and privately received into the church. Some parishes continue to baptize infants on the Sundays of Lent as though baptism had no relation to the season. And for many Catholics, Mass on Easter Sunday morning still takes precedence over the celebration of the Easter Vigil, perhaps because the vigil is often poorly celebrated. Often it appears that the baptismal sense of Lent doesn’t make its way out of the official liturgical books and into the pews.

The second obstacle comes from the long tradition of Lent as primarily a penitential season characterized especially by fasting. Today, as a result of this long prevalent tradition, there seems to be a certain residual guilt regarding the practice of fasting, as though Catholics of the generation after Vatican II have become less fervent with the loss of the practice. What should be said about fasting?

Early Christians rose above the Platonic view of things when they urged that the fruit of fasting should be greater generosity and attention to the needs of others.

The early Christians did not have all the answers, and their piety was influenced by many non-Christian sources. One such source was the Platonic view of the relationship between the body and the spirit, a view which affected everyone in Hellenistic times. According to this view, the only way people can be really themselves, or become just what they are meant to become, is to repress their bodies as much as possible. The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages turned away from this view of the body as the prison of the soul. Many of them taught that the body is an integral part of the human person, and that Christian asceticism cannot healthfully attempt to deny the body. In modern time, increased knowledge of physiology and psychology has confirmed this view.

Self-discipline is of course an essential part of the Christian way of life. Fasting still has a legitimate place as a form of self-discipline, but its purpose today is not to denigrate the body. Early Christians rose above the Platonic view of things when they urged that the fruit of fasting should be greater generosity and attention to the needs of others. In Leo’s words, “The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are visited, and everyone seeks not their own good but that of their neighbor, by making the most of their own means to relieve the misery of others.” The Christian sense of fasting, in other words, was other-centered rather than ego-centered.

Cash and carry?

In early Christian times there were no social agencies to provide for the underprivileged, the sick, or the needy, and therefore almsgiving was seen as an essential addition to fasting. Charity had to make up for the social injustices that society had no structures for remedying. Although modern societies have by no means solved the problems of misery and injustice, there is no doubt that today the Christian churches are not the only agencies concerned with the works of mercy. As a result, in a society where there are many agencies that work for the relief of the needy, it is not always easy for people to decide how they can most effectively “make the most of their own means to relieve the misery of others.”

Lent is a good time for individuals, families, and the parish community to take a close look at that question. Some will focus on the needs of the neighborhood and the local community. Others will look to the relief of the underprivileged in other parts of the world. Many Christians have found that a good way to begin is to examine their lifestyles and try to discover the excesses which get in the way of seriously considering the needs of others.

Some will decide that they are spending too much on junk foods or luxury foods, or on drink or entertainment. For still others, driving a smaller car becomes a matter not just of economy but of social consequence. Anyone can see that North Americans possess and consume far too great a portion of the world’s wealth. But it does not seem possible for anyone to generalize what everyone “ought” to be doing. The list of “oughts” is nearly infinite. Simplicity of lifestyle means different things to different people in different places. But it is safe to say that if Christians everywhere gave serious attention to searching for a simpler and less encumbered lifestyle, whatever that might mean for each person, the impact on the world would be enormous.

A thoughtful and thorough examination of one’s lifestyle, undertaken each year as a Lenten project, accomplishes what the fasting and almsgiving of past eras intended. To make such an examination, and to come to a decision on a practical way of sharing one’s abundance with others, can easily be made a family project. It will inevitably be a prayerful action, and it will be a truly baptismal act.

Simplicity of lifestyle means different things to different people in different places.

A third obstacle that stands in the way of a renewed understanding of Lent is individualism. Giving up candy or movies were very individualistic practices, and the piety of Lent was private and individualistic. The focus was on what one did as penance for one’s own sins and for the salvation of one’s soul. The devotions of Lent, such as the Stations of the Cross, were also directed to private piety. There was little attention paid, either in the liturgy or in the sermons we heard, to Leo’s notion of Lent as a time when “a single purpose unites everyone, and the author of all goodness is blessed in one great act of thanksgiving.”

This great individualistic tone permeates more of Catholic life than just the Lenten season. Despite the reforms of Vatican II, many Sunday liturgies throughout the year fail utterly as community experiences—the priest, musicians, and readers all go about their business, the people assemble, and nothing happens to bring them together. Many Catholic parishes need to take that step toward being a community, and Lent offers an excellent opportunity. Who are the needy in the community? Does the parish address their needs? Many parishioners need to be urged into action: Has the parish offered suggestions and opportunities for parishioners to do the corporal works of mercy? And perhaps most important, does the parish have candidates for initiation into the church who are present throughout Lent as they go through the final stages of initiation? Without such candidates, the liturgies of Lent and Easter lose much of their impact.

To understand Lent as a common journey and to make it in some way a community experience is not easy. The important thing for Christians today to remember is that the original meaning of Lent was not as a time to shed excess weight or save a few dollars by not going to the movies. It was, and is, a time set aside by the Christian community to make a new commitment to baptism and Jesus’ way of life.

This article was originally published in the March 1983 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Flickr cc via Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston