Wednesday, February 14, 2018


There is ... no city or nation ... where the proclamation of the Lenten fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no man then separate himself from the number of the fasters, in which ever race of mankind, every period of life, every class of society is included. So spoke Saint Basil the Great (330-379) in one of his famous Lenten sermons, highlighting the seeming universality of the Church's Lenten observance in the 4th century. That observance was focused on fasting, a practice which continued, with growing mitigation, until its virtually complete elimination in the late 20th century. 

A somewhat progressively inclined confrere, now sadly deceased, once remarked how strange he thought it that Lent had survived at all in the post-conciliar liturgical reformation. Yet survive it did (albeit deprived of its most distinctive and ancient practice of fasting). It has survived and can still be said to be the most popular season of the Church's calendar.

And so here we find ourselves at the beginning of another Lent, with the seriousness of  Ash Wednesday competing this year with the frivolity of Valentine's Day. For all its popularity, Ash Wednesday (along with the 3 following days) was actually a late addition to Lent. The popular practice of receiving Ashes on this day probably originated in connection with the long-defunct Order of Penitents. Originally it was the official Penitents who received Ashes and who were then "expelled" on Ash Wednesday to spend the rest of Lent doing Penance in preparation for being reconciled to the Church and readmitted on Holy Thursday. In the absence of an Order of Penitents, the practice has been universalized and the Church now invites all of us both to receive blessed ashes and to undertake some modified version of penance. This is often popularized as "giving up something," but it can also take the form of added activities such as prayer and characteristic Lenten devotions as well as acts of charity and service to others. Far from being an end in itself, fasting was once seen primarily as a spur to prayer and charity

In effect, Lent represents a kind of (much needed for most of us) intensification in the Church's observance - an opportunity to reassess  one's relationships with God, with the Church, and with the world, a time to reexamine one's past in order to reform in the present in light of our common hope for the future. It represents in a heightened way what all our time on earth is meant to be: Even now you set before your people a time of grace and reconciliation, and, as they turn back to you in spirit, you grant them hope in Christ Jesus and a desire to be of service to all, while they entrust themselves more fully to the Holy Spirit. (Eucharistic Prayer I for Reconciliation)

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