Lent: The Technical Details
In my last post, I gave a brief 30,000 foot aerial view preface for Lent and what’s happening in this time in the Church’s Liturgical Year. What I’d like to now discuss are the technical details of Lent.
To begin with, why is this time in the Church’s Liturgical Year even called Lent? Well technically, it’s not actually called Lent, but rather Quadragesima, Quadragesima being the Latin word for the number 40. Now given that this time in the Church’s Liturgical Year encompasses 40 days of penance, exclusive of the six Sundays of the time – four days from Ash Wednesday through Saturday, then six weeks of penance, excluding Sundays…so 36 days over six weeks, plus the first four days starting with Ash Wednesday – given that this time in the Church’s Liturgical Year encompasses 40 days of penance, so we are in Quadragesima. Where does the word lent come from then? The word lent itself is from the ancient English-Saxon language, which used the word lent for the season of spring. And since Quadragesima always falls during the spring time-frame, so Quadragesima also came to be referred to more familiarly as Lent.
But Quadragesima is surely a word that helps us understand this time in the Church’s Liturgical Year precisely because it is the Latin for 40, a significant number in Scripture. Forty days and 40 nights of rain in the great Deluge of Noah’s flood, sent by God in His anger, when He repented that He had made man and destroyed the whole human race, with the exception of one family. The Israelites, in punishment for refusing to enter the Promised Land, were made to wander 40 years in the desert before they were permitted to enter that land. Moses, symbolic of the Old Testament Law, and Elijah, symbol of the Old Testament prophets, prepared to encounter God with fasts of 40 days. Jonah prophesied Nineveh’s destruction in 40 days if they didn’t first repent. We could go on and on with examples from Scripture, point being that 40 signifies a time of probation or testing. Hence our Lord Himself, in His great testing in the wilderness, fasted 40 days and nights. And hence our own time of testing in preparation of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ encompasses 40 days of penance, as well. This universal season of penance in the Church in preparation for the Sacred Triduum officially becoming 40 days itself at the close of the 6th century under Pope St. Gregory the Great, who added those four days starting with Ash Wednesday to make Lent 40 days total, for the now obvious reason.
All this brings me to my favorite quote on Lent from Pope Benedict XIV in 1741: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of Divine justice. By it, we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” Forty days of probation and testing, like so many others who came before us in Scripture, certainly always sounds like an arduous task every time that we annually revisit Lent. But this is, nonetheless, the greatest time in the Church’s Liturgical Year. As one commentator, remaining anonymous, put it, “The reversion to the faith are many during Lent. It is unseen by the world, but it is seen in the confessional by the priests. It can only be explained by the prayers and sacrifices being offered to God by the Church.” Great conversions will happen during Lent, people coming to the Church and the Sacraments, precisely because we put the work in during this probation and testing. We are the Church Militant and Lent is the badge of our Christian warfare.
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