Yesterday was ‘Ash Wednesday’ which marks the beginning of the 40-day period leading up to Easter marked by sacrifice and fasting known as Lent.
The origins of this pre-Easter fasting period have been disputed. Some feel that Lent traces back to the Apostolic era of Jesus’ followers themselves during the years immediately after his death. Others feel that it developed later, perhaps around the time of the Council of Nicea in the early fourth century.
Whatever the origins of the custom, it has become a period of forty days based on various Biblical examples provided for such a period by Moses, Elias, and Jesus Christ Himself, who was said to have laid in the tomb for forty hours.
In the early years the actual fasting periods and methods varied in many places, but of course it generally involved someone intentionally ‘giving something up’ from their regular daily lives as a sacrifice in remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ had made on the cross.
Socrates spoke of the practice in the fifth century when he described some who “abstain from every sort of creature that has life“, meaning that these people would eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and things of this nature. Still others, he said, ate fish only, or ate only birds and fish, or abstained from eating eggs, or ate only dry bread.
There were still others in those times who were even more strict in their fasting, taking only a couple of meals each week. The early rules of the Church on fasting said that you could only take such meals in the evening, and that meat and wine were forbidden during fasting.
It was during the sixth century that Saint Gregory laid down what has become considered as common law within the Church. In a letter to Saint Augustine of England, Gregory stated “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
Exceptions were made traditionally as ‘dispensations’ for special circumstances, as well as in exchange for gifts to the greater Church. There has still been a general prohibition on eggs and milk observed by many during the Lenten period. From this over the centuries evolved the practice of the ‘Easter egg’ as a return to eating produce on Easter Sunday.
Many different customs and rulings from the Church Fathers evolved over the centuries, and the Holy See, the central administration of the Church, has modern rulings in place for Americans.
In the United States today, the official Church position is that working men and women and their families may use flesh meat once a day throughout the year, except on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and the Christmas Vigil. During Lent we are not supposed to take both fish and flesh at the same meal.
Besides the traditions and customs of sacrifice and fasting, since Vatican II the Church has emphasized Lent as a preparation period for the Baptism of catechumens, those individuals who are first coming in to the Catholic Church voluntarily as adults or older children.
Lent is about conversion, the turning over of our lives more completely and fully to Christ. Nowhere is that process more full and complete than in the willing Baptism into the Church, which is itself the very body of Christ, of new believers.
But it is not just for these ‘newbies’ that the conversion aspect is important. All believers are urged during Lent to not just give something up, but also to recommit to Christ and to our faith.
We should all be encouraged to make a good, full Confession, do Penance, and thus receive forgiveness for our sins and make a new beginning. For many who have been away from the sacrament for a long time, that overcoming of your fear and your ego is a wonderful sacrifice in itself.
The Lenten sacrifice lasts for a period of forty days, but you will have many more opportunities during the period to recognize your need for conversion. Not just on Ash Wednesday, or on Fridays, or on Sundays. Not even in your daily lives when you give up that candy, or soda, or smoking, or some other habit or sin.
Every intentional act of drawing closer to Christ, be it increased prayer, the saying of the rosary, going to Confession, watching EWTN on television, being nicer to the people in your life. All of these things are acts of conversion, and all can be considered as a part of the Lenten sacrifice.
Remember that whatever you give up, or whatever new you take on, none of your sacrifices could ever compare with the sacrifice that God has made for you. He gave up His only begotten Son that you might live.
Jesus Christ suffered severe persecution and ultimately died on the cross so that your sins would be washed away. With this in mind we should all realize that our Lenten burden is indeed a light one.