In the Roman Rite, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for forty days, plus Sundays. Lent ends with the celebration of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. By the year 325, forty days of fasting before Easter was customary. These forty days were associated with Jesus’ forty-day fast in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). The number forty, which is a symbol of a time of testing, is also associated with:
- the forty-day fasts of Moses and Elijah,
- forty days of rain during the Flood, and
- the forty years that the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness.
The Sundays of this season are numbered: from the First Sunday of Lent to the Fifth Sunday of Lent. The following Sunday, called Passion (Palm) Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week.
Lent prepares us for Easter. During Lent, therefore, we do the following things:
- Fast (develops self-discipline and creates a sense of solidarity with those around the world who are struggling),
- Give alms (gives us an opportunity to share material blessings),
- Remember our baptism (gives us an opportunity to reconnect with our baptismal promises), and
- Pray for ourselves and for all people (gives us the opportunity to grow in self-awareness through a good examination of conscience).
This is a special time for catechumens as they prepare to be baptized and received into the Church.
The combination of prayer and fasting is a powerful experience. Whenever we are faced with what may appear to be insurmountable troubles, we may notice a difference if we add fasting to our prayer lives. Jesus reminds us that some situations require the power that comes from prayer and fasting, as fasting helps us to develop self-discipline. This self-discipline can spill over into our thoughts and attitudes as well. We can fast from certain foods, or we may need to fast from negative thoughts and habits. Inner peace requires self-discipline. Fasting can help move us closer to that peace.
Jesus fasted and prayed
Jesus spent time in the desert fasting and preparing before his public ministry. His actions reveal something powerful to us: we need to prepare if we are to serve in his kingdom. If our spirit is not prepared to serve Christ, our ministry will suffer. Since Jesus prayed and fasted before his public mission, we are called to do the same.
Pray without ceasing! (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Because the date of Easter changes from year to year, Ash Wednesday can occur on any day from February 4 to March 11. Ash Wednesday was originally intended for penitents, who were excluded for a time from the community of faith. (Covering oneself with ashes as a sign of repentance began before Christianity.) Now Lent begins on this day. We are called to make a commitment to “turn away from sin and turn toward the Gospel.” Ash Wednesday begins a lengthy process of self-examination where we look at different areas of our lives and ask questions about our thoughts, intentions, words and actions. As we repeat this process year after year, we should see growth in many areas as we move away from ignorance and towards understanding and healing. Our faith development should move us out of ignorance, into learning, and finally into a state of restoration.