The Meaning of Lent
The English word ‘Lent’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning ‘Spring’. In other languages the word comes from the Latin, Quadragesima – a period of 40 days. In the Christian tradition the forty days is understood to refer to a time of intense prayer and preparation; we remember the biblical stories of Noah and the flood of 40 days, the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness and Christ’s forty day fast in the desert in preparation for his earthly ministry.
Things to know about Lent
Lent exists for the sake of Easter! It is the forty day period of preparation for the Church’s celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (this year 14th February) and ends before Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday (this year, 29th March). Lent has six Sundays (Palm Sunday being the sixth Sunday). There is a double focus in Lent – baptism and penance. It is the final stage of preparation for adults who will be baptised at the Easter Vigil. For those already baptised it is a time to recall their baptism and prepare to renew it at Easter. Lent calls us to a time of self-reflection, penance and turning back to God as we ready ourselves to renew our baptism. It is a time to reflect on God’s word to us in our lives today, to pray, fast and reach out to others in charitable action. Lent is a season we celebrate individually but also as a Christian community, as a Church. We can look at Lent as a communal journey of the Christian community back to God…our annual retreat culminating in the joy of Easter.
The Purpose of Penance
Penance is a word we associate with Lent. It’s worthwhile remembering that penance is not about enduring some form of hardship for hardship sake. It is directed towards growth, towards refocusing our life towards God. It is to do with bringing about an inner change in ourselves.
When we turn towards something we are by implication turning our back on something else. Likewise when we turn towards God we are invariably turning our back on other aspects of our lives. Penance helps us to discern and practice turning our back on those things in our life that hinder our relationship with God and that hinder how we live out that relationship daily.
The Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the tools of penance that have our renewal and conversion as their goal.
Regulations for Fasting in Lent
As Catholics we are asked to abstain from meat and to fast on two days in the year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Fasting means that one full meatless meal can be eaten in the day. Two other meatless meals may be taken to maintain strength but together they should not exceed one full meal. Liquids, including milk and fruit juice, may be taken between meals.
The fasting regulation applies to all persons aged 18 to 59 while those aged fourteen and above are asked to abstain from meat.
Some people are not required to fast; these include those who are sick, pregnant or nursing women and manual labourers according to need.
In the past Irish Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday. While still not a requirement, the Irish Bishops’ Conference has suggested it as a form of Friday Penance during Lent.