Header Ads

An insight into the sacred season of Lent – Its meaning, historicity and liturgical uniqueness.

 An insight into the sacred season of Lent – Its meaning, historicity and liturgical uniqueness.

By Obiorah Ifenna 


The Church in the sacred season of Lent calls her children to penitence and repentance. This central message is what makes the Lenten season the most interesting season for me.  This piece of writing therefore aims at an insight into the sacred season of Lent – its meaning, historicity and liturgical uniqueness. At the end, one could affirm that this uniqueness is undoubtedly the very reason for its attractiveness to me.

 The Reality of Sin and Human Suffering

Soon after the creation of man (Cf. Gen.1:26, 2:3-7), man disobeyed God and lost His friendship – the consequence is an untold suffering. Here we consider the origin of the reality of this despicable human condition from the Biblical (Theological) standpoint. Here the experience of suffering is traced back to the fall of Man. For Verheven (2006:1), the story of human suffering began when the serpent (the symbol of Satan) deceived Eve not to believe in the Word of God by distorting the truth of God. This deception led to man’s disobedience and the eventual fall. Biblically, due to the primeval fall, man lost his friendship with God (Cf. Gen.2:19-20) and thus groans in travail (Cf. Rom. 8:20).

Thus, just as sin is common to men, the very reality of human suffering is as well a universal experience. No one can deny of having in one time or another shared from this experience. Humanity is marked with a common seal – suffering. Failures upon failures! Human existence is imbued with much sense of pain, frustration, agony, sorrow and guilt. The reality of sin and suffering spurs man into a gesture of humility to reconcile with God. This gesture is epitomized in the Sacred Season of Lent.


The Sacred Season of Lent

The term Lent is a Germanic word which means spring. The Latin equivalent is “quadragesima” - a word meaning “forty days”. It is quite interesting to note from this very beginning that these two etymologies are imbued with meanings. First, Lent is associated to that old English word “spring” not just because it is the season of the year during which it falls, but because Lent is the Church’s Springtime during which we start fresh. Second, Lent as a derivative of the Latin term “quadragesima” (forty days) has lots of biblical interpretations (Butler, 1836:141, Stephen, 2015:82).

The number “forty” is indeed unique. In the Holy Bible, the number “forty” is a traditional number of discipline, devotion and preparation. In Exodus (24:18, 34:28), Moses stayed on the Mountain of God forty days. Again, the journey from Egypt to the promise Land took the people of Israel forty years. In the First Book of Kings (19:8), Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his vision. In the Book of Prophet Jonah (3:4), Nineveh was given forty days to repent.  Most importantly, prior to undertaking his ministry, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness praying and fasting (Cf. Matt 4:2).

Therefore, by the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert (CCC 540); and thus calls her Children to a forty days of devotion (prayer), discipline (fasting and almsgiving) and preparation (hearing the word of God).   On the Ash Wednesday, Blessed and marked with the ashes, re­minding us that we are dust and to dust we will return (Stephen, 2015:84); we set out for the next forty days journey into the desert of our own hearts to look within, face our sins, and ask for God’s mercy.

Lent lies at the very heart of our Catholic faith. These forty days matters a lot. For Pope Francis (2018), “Lent is a favorable 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.” In these words of the Holy Father, three points are very important. First, that Lent is a favourable season in the life of the Church. Second, that Lent is built on three pillars - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. And finally, the foundation of these spiritual exercises must be rooted on God’s words.

  The Three Pillars: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

Lent rests on three pillars - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (Stephen, 2015:83). Lent is the period of prayer. During this penitential season, the Church calls all Catholics to spend more intentional time in prayer. Throughout the season of Lent, we are called to deepen our prayer life. For some of us, this means beginning a habit of daily prayer, setting aside time each day to share our hopes, joys, fears, and frustrations with God. As Catholics, we believe that personal prayer is not complete unless our prayers are joined with the community of faith who is the living Body of Christ. The Mass is the greatest form of prayer. It is an essential part of a healthy prayer life.

As we pray, we learn to give something up, often sweets or a favorite food, in order to focus on the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. But fasting is much more than a means of developing self-control. Fast­ing is a means of spiritual and physical purification. Fasting focuses on the proper ordering of our appetites. So while the immediate focus is on food, we are challenged to get a better control of all our appetites, particularly in regard to our sexuality. The law of abstinence obliges those 14 years of age and older not to eat meat on Fridays throughout the season of Lent as well as on Ash Wednesday. The law of fast obliges all those from ages 18 through 59 to refrain from eating between meals and to limit their eating to one full meal and two lighter meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

During the first three centuries of the Christian era there were great variances in the fasting observance before Easter. Closer examination of the ancient sources, however, reveals a more gradual historical development (Russo, 2013:18). Only following the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, did the duration for Lent become fixed at forty days. According to Russo (2013:24), forty days as a period of fasting is equally common in Scripture. Moses fasts twice for forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai: once after receiving the Law (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:9), and again when he discovers the infidelity of the Israelites in fashioning the Golden Calf (Deut. 9:18). Elijah travels for forty days and nights without food after slaying the prophets of Baal and fleeing the wrath of Jezebel (1 Kings 19:7-8). The Ninevites fasted for forty days to stave off the wrath of God (Jonah 3:4).

Almsgiving have also been an important part of Lent. Here we are challenged to prioritize our finances by putting God and the poor first. This prevents us from centering our life on money, success, and things – an easy trap in our materialistic society. Lent is a time to prepare for Easter; it is a necessary prelude. The sacrifi­cial practices of Lent prepare and purify us in body, mind and spirit for the passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Foundation – The Word of God

Following the words of the Holy Father pinpointed above, we take cognizance of the foundation of all these Lenten observances. The root is the Word of God. Thus, we are called to listen and meditate on it day and night. The readings at Masses during this sacred season have a mutual relationship and reflect the major themes of the season. The first days of Lent, for example, speak of the practices of the season (prayer and fasting) and of the spirit with which we are to fulfill them (to the benefit of others).

The gospel readings for Lent follow a definite and historic patter - The Lord’s Temptations, The Transfiguration, The Samaritan woman, the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus. The sixth Sunday is the triumphal entry – the beginning of the Holy Week, that apex of the Passiontide that ushers us into the triduum paschal (the Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). These three days are the reason and climax of Lenten preparation and penance. The Triduum is to the whole year what Sunday is to the week (Stephen, 2015:85).

 The Mood and the Entire Character of the Lenten season

Apart from the spiritual exercises, the church through various means tries to communicate to her children the preparatory and penitential mood of the Lenten season. She achieves this through the following means:

  • First, by the use of purple vestments indicates the time of penance. Sometimes the Lenten vestments use a red hued purple (violent) that anticipates the red vestments of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The crucifix, statues and other sacred images are covered with these purple clothes during the Passiontide.
  • Second, that same character should be reflected in all aspects of “decoration” throughout the season. The season is marked by a stark character; flowers are expressly forbidden in the altar area.
  • Third, to maintain an atmosphere of reflection and deep meditation, pianos and other musical instruments are not used. Alleluia during Gospel Acclamation and other songs are excluded. The Glory to God (and in the Office, the Te Deum) is omitted except on important feasts.
  • Fourth, the focus is always on the prayers and readings of the season. The calendar is kept deliberately clear of any but the most important celebrations of the saints; during Holy Week, even a major feast will be transferred until after Easter.
  • Fifth, personal reconciliation with God and one’s neighbour is recommended. The Church at this season calls her children to reconcile with God through the sacrament of Penance. Lent reminds us of the long tradition of Confession and of receiving Holy Communion at least once during the period of Lent and Eastertide.
  • Sixth, popular devotions such as the Way of the Cross and devotions to Mary, Mother of Sorrows, are encouraged. Those who participated actively merit a plenary indulgence.

Lent as an attractive season.

These are some of the various aspects of the Lenten season that makes it very interesting to me.  The entire mood and character of the Lenten season makes it very attractive to me. Being a poor sinner, Lent offers me an opportunity for a retreat – a total flash back. These events: the solemn procession of triumphal entry, the long passion narratives, the practical washing of feet on the Holy Thursday, the moment of keeping at least an hour watch with the Lord in prayer, the great silence after the service of the Lord’s passion, the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday and the resounding bells that rings to acclaim the Lord’s resurrection on the eve of Easter Sunday; for an attentive person are quite very attractive and create a big picture of a Church who remains faithful to the apostolic teachings deeply rooted in the scriptures.  At Lent, the Church tries to bring back the culture of silence, asceticism and contemplation which is gradually dying off among Christians.


Without Good Friday, there will be no Easter Sunday. Without the cross, there will be no crown.  Lent is therefore a time to prepare for Easter; it is a necessary prelude. The sacrifi­cial practices of Lent prepare and purify us in body, mind, and spirit for the passion of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a time when one must flee from himself to seek for what endures - a time to put aside the old for a new; the profane for the sacred, evil for good. There must be a time for an immortal exchange – an exchange which will see one to a happy end.


1.                  Butler, Ablan. “The Moveable Feasts, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church. New York: John Dolye, 1836.

2.                  Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

3.                  New Jerusalem Bible (Study Edition).

4.                  Pope Francis. “Massage Of His Holiness Pope Francis for Lent 2018”.  (Vatican website).

5.                  Russo, Nicholas. “The Early History of Lent”. Indiana: Baylor University Press, 2013.

6.                  Stephen, Jonah. “Beyond Word: A Journey Into Biblical and Liturgical Symbolism”. Kaduna: Virtual Insignia Press, 2015.

7.                  Verheven, Theodore. “The Deviation and Restoration of the Human Race”. USA: JJ Rodgers, 2006.



No comments

Powered by Blogger.