Lent is the time of spiritual preparation prior to the Easter season, just as Advent is for Christmas. Jesus taught us clearly that there is no resurrection without the Cross, and Lent is the Church's great spiritual journey as she, the Bride of Christ, joins her Divine spouse in His great suffering on our behalf.
Basically, you don't get the joy of Easter without the self-sacrifice of Lent; the disciples of Jesus follow in his footsteps . . . including the bloody ones. Here's a rundown of everything major you need to know about the Lenten season, the 40+ days of penance to prepare our hearts Easter, the greatest of all Christian feasts.
LENT IN A NUTSHELL
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday (this year March 1, 2017) and ends on Holy Thursday (this year April 13, 2017). On the evening of Holy Thursday the Sacred Triduum beings.
The 40 days of Lent correspond to the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness to fast, pray, and endure the temptations of the devil, all in preparation for his public ministry which would culminate in his death on the cross.
"Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving." —Pope Benedict XVI
LENTEN MESSAGE FROM THE HOLY FATHER
Each year the Holy Father offers a new Lenten theme, his exhortation to the faithful as they enter the liturgical season in mind and heart. You can read Pope Francis' message for 2017 in its entirety at the link below. This year's theme is:
"The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift."
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts” (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord. Jesus is the faithful friend who never abandons us. Even when we sin, he patiently awaits our return; by that patient expectation, he shows us his readiness to forgive (cf. Homily, 8 January 2016).
Lent is a favourable season for deepening our spiritual life through the means of sanctification offered us by the Church: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. At the basis of everything is the word of God, which during this season we are invited to hear and ponder more deeply. I would now like to consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31). Let us find inspiration in this meaningful story, for it provides a key to understanding what we need to do in order to attain true happiness and eternal life. It exhorts us to sincere conversion. Continue reading Pope Francis' Lenten theme for 2017.
FAST: Eating less food than normal (does not necessarily mean no food).
- What you can eat: One normal, full-sized meal, and two smaller meals which if combined would not exceed one full meal.
- Why: "Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God." —Pope Benedict XVI
ABSTINENCE: Do not eat meat.
- What you can eat: fish and seafood
- Why: "Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church." —USCCB
ALMSGIVING: Material generosity to the less fortunate.
- What you can give: money, goods, acts of charity
- Why: Almsgiving "represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods . . . Almsgiving helps us to overcome this constant temptation, teaching us to respond to our neighbor’s needs and to share with others whatever we possess through divine goodness." —Pope Benedict XVI
IMPORTANT DAYS DURING LENT
Ash Wednesday: Marks the start of Lent and the time for penance. Obligatory day of fasting (ages 18 to 59) and abstinence (ages 14 & over).
Fridays of Lent: Obligatory abstinence (ages 14 & over). All Fridays (even outside of Lent) are days of penance.
Holy Thursday: Lent ends and the Holy Triduum begins in the evening with the commemoration of the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Good Friday: The anniversary of the Crucifixion of Christ (no Mass). Obligatory day of fasting (ages 18 to 59) and abstinence (ages 14 & over).
Holy Saturday: Christ is in the grave conquering death and freeing the captives. Final day of Lenten fasting (no daily Mass, Easter Vigil begins at sundown).
Sacred Triduum: The period of 3 days (Holy Thursday + Good Friday + Holy Saturday) during which we remember Christ's Passion, ending at the Easter Vigil (Saturday evening).
Easter Sunday: Lent has ended and the joy begins, the day of Christ's resurrection, the principle Christian feast of the entire liturgical year. This is the celebration of Christ's victory over sin and death merited for us by his passion, death, and resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
OBLIGATORY DUTIES FOR CATHOLICS DURING LENT
Fasting & Abstinence: Our obligatory duty on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Abstinence: Do not eat meat on the Fridays of Lent. Treat it as a day of penance.
Confession: Catholics are obligated to fulfill their Easter Duty by receiving Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season (from Easter Sunday to Pentecost), therefore the Sacrament of Penance for any mortal sins is required prior to this, and is strongly recommended as a Lenten penitential practice for any venial sins prior to the Easter feast.
BEST LENTEN PRACTICES
- The entire season of Lent is a penitential season. The liturgical color for Lent is purple (just like Advent) to show that it is a special time of penance. Taking up additional practices, such as self-imposed fasting outside of the obligatory times, Lenten devotions and spiritual reading, Stations of the Cross, a daily rosary, serving the poor, etc., all enhance the penitential and spiritual aspect of Lent.
- Make the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) an important part of your Lenten penitential practice. Many parishes have special times for confession during Lent. One traditional devotion towards this sacrament is to make a general confession of your whole life using an examination of conscience.
- Attend Mass on Ash Wednesday. While it is not a Holy Day of Obligation, all are encouraged to attend to receive ashes on the forehead.
- Attend Mass on Holy Thursday to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist, called the "Mass of the Lord's Supper."
- At 3 o'clock on Good Friday, pause and make a special effort to keep this hour sacred. This is the hour of Christ's death on the cross, after which redemption for mankind was completed. Praying the Divine Mercy chaplet is ideal at this time (it just takes five minutes), or check your local parish schedules for a 3 o'clock Good Friday service (see below).
- If possible, try to clear your schedule in order to participate in the traditional Veneration of the Cross service on Good Friday.
- Continue your Good Friday fast up to the start of the Easter Vigil to correspond to the entire time from Christ's death on the cross until his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
- Attend the Easter Vigil at sundown on Holy Saturday to welcome the Easter Sunday feast. Pray for those being received into full communion with the Catholic Church at this Mass, that they will remain faithful to Christ and his Church, grow in holiness, and become saints.
- On Easter Sunday and throughout the Easter season, fully celebrate the joy of Christ's Resurrection and the conquering of sin and death he merited for us. Greet one another with the Paschal Greeting/Easter Acclamation, "Christ is risen!" and the response, "He is risen indeed!"
"The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies 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 that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe."
—Pope Benedict XIV
This article has been updated and was originally published in February 2014. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.