Lent is the 40 day period before Easter, excluding Sundays, which begins today, Ash Wednesday, and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Sundays are excluded because Sunday is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, wherein it is inapppropriate to fast and mourn our sins on that day, as we must celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, our salvation. On Friday, we commemorate the death of Our Lord for our sins and Fridays are days of penance.
Lent is forty days long pursuant to previous traditions set forth in the Holy Scriptures. For example, Moses remained on the Montain of God for forty days (Exodus 24:18 and 34:28), Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his visions (1 Kings 19:8); Nineveh was provided with forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4);and of course, Our Lord Jesus, before going forth in His public ministry, spent forty days in the wilderness praying and fasting (Matthew 4:2).
Since Jesus prepared himself for his public ministry during these forty days, so, too, do we imitate Him with prayer and fasting during this time to prepare for Holy Week, the Paschal Mystery. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (540), “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence. Fasting means that you are allowed one full meal and two maller meals. Abstinence means that you abstain from all meat. We give up meat, a good thing, to attain a spiritual goal. Abstinence is required on the Fridays of Lent for all those beginning at age 14. Fasting is required of all those from age 18 through age 59. We abstain on Fridays because Jesus died for our sins on Friday, making this day appropriate for mourning our sins. The Code of Canon Law (CIC 1250) provides that “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and time throughout the Universal Church.” As to persons with medical conditions requiring a greater or more regular food intake can easily be dispensed from the requirement of fasting as with people who have special dietary needs can also be dispensed.
Jesus gave the leaders of His Church, the apostles and all leaders in apostolic succession in the Church, the authority to establish days of fast and abstinence, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19, 18:18). The “binding and loosing” language comes from the rabbinic way of establishing rules of conduct, or “halakah”, wherein the Jewish Encyclopedia provides in pertinent part as follows:
“Binding and Loosing (Hebrew, asar ve-hittir)…is a Rabinnical term for forbidding and permitting…” Accordingly, Jesus gave the leaders of the Church the power of making such rules of conduct for the Christian community.
Pope Benedict tells us in his “Message of Holiness for Lent 2013,” that “the celebration of Lent, in the context of the Year of Faith, offers us a valuable opportunity to meditate on the relationship between faith and charity: between believing in God – the God Jesus Christ – and love, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and which guides us on the path of devotion to God and others.” The Holy Father also makes a most important statement about Faith, to-wit: “Faith tells us that God has given His Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love!…Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. All this helps us to understand that the principal distinguishing mark of Christians is precisely “love grounded in and shaped by faith.”
Pope Benedict explains the relationship of Faith with Charity: “The entire Christian life is a response to God’s love. The first response is precisely faith as the acceptance, filled with wonder and gratitude, of the unprecedented divine initiative that precedes us and summons us. And the “yes” of faith marks the beginning of a radiant story of friendship withthe Lord, which fills and gives full meaning to our whole life. But it is not enough for God that we simply accept his gratuitious love. Not only does He love us, but He wants to draw us to Himself, to transform us in such a proufound way as to bring us to say with Saint Paul: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).”
Pope Benedict then clarifies that faith must lead us to action, when he says: “Faith is knowing the truth and adhering to it (1 Tim 2:4); charity is “walking” in the truth (Eph 4:15). Through faith we enter into friendship with the Lord, through charity this friendship is lived and cultivated (Jn 15:14). Faith causes us to embrace the commandment of Our Lord and Master, charity gives us the happiness of putting it into practice (Jn 13:13-17). In faith we are begotten as children of God (Jn 1:12); charity causes us to persevere concretely in our divine sonship, bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). Faith enables us to recognize the gifts that the good and generous God has entrusted to us; charity makes them fruitful (Mt 25:14-30). This comes to mind the admonition and conclusion of St James that “faith without works is dead; show me your works and I’ll show you your faith.”
And, the Pope tells us that “Faith without works is like a tree without fruit: the two virtues imply one another. Lent invites us, through the traditional practices of the Christian life, to nourish our faith by careful and extended listening to the word of God and by receiving the sacraments, and at the same time to grow in charity and in love for God and neighbour, not least through the specific practices of fasting, penance and almsgiving.”
“The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love. In sacred Scripture, we see how the zeal of the Apostles to proclaim the Gospel and awaken people’s faith is closely related to their charitable concern to be of service to the poor (Acts 6:1-4), In the Church, contemplation and action, symbolized in some way by the Gospel figures of Mary and Martha, have to coexist and compliment each other (Lk 10:38-42). The relationship with God must always be the priority, and any true sharing of goods, in the spirit of the Gospel, must be rooted in faith. Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term, “charity,” to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the “ministry of the word”. There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbour than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person. As the Servant of God Pope Paul VI wrote in the encyclical Populorum Progressio, the proclamation of Christ is the first and principal contributor to development. It is the primordial truth of the love of God for us, lived and proclaimed, that opens our lives to receive this love and makes possible the integral development of humanity and of every man (Caritas in Veritate, 8).”
Ending with this communication, the Holy Father tells us:
“Dear brothers and sisters, in this season of Lent, as we prepare to celebrate the event of the Cross and Resurrection – in which the love of God redeemed the world and shone its light upon history – I express my wish that all of you may spend this precious time rekindling your faith in Jesus Christ, so as to enter with Him into the dynamnic of love for the Father and for every brother and sister that we encounter in our lives. For this intention, I raise my prayer to God, and I invoke the Lord’s blessing upon each individual and upon every community!”
Finally, let us also examine our lives and identify our faults and proclivities to sin, so that we look into our conscience to reform ourselves. This is the opposite of an unhealthy and selfish narcissism, where people appoint themselves as their own gods and goddesses, so wrapped up in their vanity and ego that they cannot see real Truth, who is a Person, Jesus Christ, nor can they truly love their neighbor because their love is not a love from God, nor can they repent and transform themselves in the Person of Love, Jesus.
This evening as I receive the ashes upon my forehead, I will remember my mortality, and I will also remember to live the Gospel in my own “Calcutta”, knowing that Jesus is the Truth and that I am His servant and His daughter.
I send each of you my respect and love, especially during this special time of Lent.
Catechism of the Catholic Church; Vatican Library: Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI For Lent 2031; EWTN Library “All About Lent” – James Akin