Today is Ash Wednesday. It's the start of Lent, the season of repentance prior to Easter, which is the most important Christian holiday. Lent is intended to echo Christ's own 40 day sojourn in the desert prior to his final ministry, tribulations, and Passion in Jerusalem. For many Catholics, Lent is an onerous burden, though less so than in the past because the Church's dietary restrictions are now lighter. But for many that I know personally, it is their favorite season. Lent is a time to focus on God, and on one's own relationship with and reliance upon Him, that is like no other time in the Church's calendar.
Lent is a time when sign, symbol, and ritual, already important for practicing Catholics, become even more important than at other times of the year. Beginning with the ashes of today, mementos of our mortality, the season progresses through rituals of diet, prayer, and liturgy, culminating in the rites of Holy Week. Wrapping yourself up in the rhythms and journey, the prayer and practice of Lent can be such a powerful pilgrimage that I am amazed that many Christian denominations don't 'do' Lent.
So how do you 'do' Lent? The best thing to do is to start with the Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday from the lectionary. The Old Testament reading from Joel, chapter 2, is a call to renewal, repentance and conversion of the heart, with reminders of God's mercy and steadfast love. The Psalm is extracted from Psalm 51 and acknowledges that we sin against God alone, and that only God can forgive us. It is a call for mercy, forgiveness, and renewal from God. The reading from the fifth chapter of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians reminds us of God's imminence. The Kingdom of God is always at hand, and now is the time to be reconciled to God. "Now," Paul says, "is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." These readings lay the foundation for the proper spiritual frame of mind for Lent. The elements of good Lenten practice, as well as attitude, are laid out in the reading from the beginning of the sixth chapter of Matthew's Gospel. These elements are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all done with sincerity and without show.
The Church allows considerable freedom during Lent. Dietary restrictions are minimal. Many modes of worship, prayer, and repentance are suggested and made available. Opportunities for almsgiving are abundant. Little is mandated. It's up to the individual.
To a Lent well spent...
[Image from Stefano Giovannini]