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The season of lent in the church

Feb 17, 2016, 10:42 AM | Article By: FR. EDU GOMEZ - Parish of the Resurrection, Brikama

1.         INTRODUCTION:  We began the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday and until now we are in the first week. Lent we have learnt according to the teachings of the Church is a forty days period set aside before Easter. I will in the next three weeks in the series of the Christian Panorama write on the Lenten reflections of the three basic virtues of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three basic virtues are important because for the Christian believer, they are to be lived and practiced.

LENT IN CHURCH HISTORY: The word Lent comes from Anglo-Saxon word Lencten which means spring.  In the lands where the Church began to spread in the early centuries, there were four natural seasons of the year as distinct from the tropics where there are two seasons.  Apart from this original meaning of the word, Lent is a period of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance in preparation for the great feast of Easter, the feast of the Resurrection.

As it is, Lent is not a season important in itself but it is a season of preparation for Easter. Therefore without Easter, there would be no lent nor would there be the need of Lent.  “Easter gives meaning to Lent and shows us what it really is the great Paschal Feast of the Church”.  (The Catholic Encyclopedia page 634).

In the early history of the Church i.e. about the third century after the resurrection of Christ, Lent did not exist as we have it today. What existed was a period of one or two days of fasting before Easter Sunday. In Rome an old tradition prescribes a two day fast only. The first indication of a forty days period occurred in a law of the Council of Nicea. This Council met in AD 325.  A definite forty days period came to be known from AD 360 onwards as the Council of Laodicea expressly commanded its observance. The Lenten period of forty days preparation for Easter finally and formally came to be recoginsed by the end of the fourth century and was observed by the whole Church in the east and west.

In the Church, the number forty used came from the forty days fast of Jesus in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11, Lk. 4:1-13).  Originally then the idea was a preparation for baptism as Easter time was the ideal time to receive the sacrament of baptism.  Baptism as a sacrament meant a dying to sin and rising to new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Fasting was not originally recognized as being of great importance but gradually it became more and more important.  In the Easter Church, the forty days period was spread over seven weeks with Saturday and Sunday free from the days of fasting.  In the Church in the West, there was a six weeks period with Sundays only exempted from fasting.  This meant that there were only thirty six days of fasting in the Church in the West.  Additional four days were added to the thirty six days which were derived from Ash Wednesday and the three days from were Lent began.

During the early centuries beginning from the fifth, fasting was very important and so very strict.  For example meat was not allowed even on Sundays and only one meal was allowed during the fast and to be eaten in the evening.  In additional to meat and fish being forbidden, eggs and diary products were also in most places absolutely forbidden. This lasted until the ninth century when things began to change.  The Church’s prohibition against fish was removed in the middle ages while a dispensation to eat diary products became more general.  Over the last few centuries, the Church granted more substantial dispensations from the once rigorous fast.  Meat was first allowed on Sundays and now it is allowed on week days except Fridays.

LENT IN THE YEAR OF MERCY:  This year we observe the year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, meaning a year set aside to reflect on God’s mercy to all his people. The Holy Father Pope Francis declare the year as it is important to reflect on the mercy of God. The world lacks mercy because of the many unkind and wicked atrocities that goes on. The war in Syria, the heartless ill treatment of migrants as they travel the world over to seek for refuge, the inhuman trade in drugs and also human trafficking in South America, even in Africa the gross negligence of governments towards their people warrants God’s mercy be shown in this world. 

The Holy Father, Pope Francis declared that during this year of mercy, “all people, men and women are called to reconciliation and peace, called to forgiveness and mercy toward one another”. The season of lent is a season tied up with God’s mercy as believers would pray for forgiveness of their sins.  As prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  May this Lenten season be filled with mercy for us all.  Amen.