Understanding the sacraments: Preparing for Lent

Looking at our campaign of Christian service as we anticipate the Easter celebration

The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday describes Lent in striking military language—we are embarking on a “campaign of Christian service” in which “we take up battles against spiritual evils” and arm ourselves “with weapons of self-restraint.”

A disciplined preparation for celebrating Easter has been part of the Church’s life from its earliest days. Christians of the second century observed “a two-day, grief-inspired fast” that was extended to all of Holy Week in the third century (Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, 91).

The Council of Nicea in 325 (the first ecumenical council) speaks of a 40-day fast “as something obvious and familiar to all” (Adam, 91). The 40 days are an imitation of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert, prefigured in Moses’ 40-day fast on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), Elijah’s fast on his journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8) and Israel’s 40 years in the desert.

Devotions and spiritual exercises can enrich our observance of Lent and prepare us for a more fruitful celebration of the Triduum. In this column I would like to suggest a couple that are recommend by The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (DPPL) that I introduced in my last column.

One of the DPPL’s recommendations is reading the account of the Lord’s Passion, either privately or communally, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays. A prayerful reading of the Lord’s suffering “inspires true devotion: repentance for sins, since the faithful see that Christ died for the sins of the entire human race, including their own; compassion and solidarity for the Innocent who was unjustly condemned; gratitude for the infinite love of Jesus for all the brethren, which was shown by Jesus, the first born Son, in his Passion; commitment to imitating his example of meekness, patience, mercy, forgiveness of offenses, abandonment to the Father, which Jesus did willingly and efficaciously in his Passion” (DPPL, 131).

Another devotion recommended by the DPPL is the familiar Way of the Cross. This popular devotion brings together “various strands of Christian piety: the idea of life being a journey or pilgrimage; as a passage from earthly exile to our true home in Heaven; the deep desire to be conformed to the Passion of Christ; the demands of following Christ, which imply that his disciples must follow behind the Master, daily carrying their own crosses (cf Luke 9:23)” (DPPL, 133).

The DPPL recommends using different forms of this devotion. One they suggest is a form publicly used by the pope, such as that used by St. John Paul II at the Colosseum in 1991. The complete text used by the saint is available at www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/liturgy/lent/stations-of-the-cross-with-john-paul-ii-1991/ .

The DPPL also recommends that the Stations “should conclude…in such fashion as to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope” (133).

A third devotion recommended by the DPPL for Lent is the Way of Mary, “‘the woman of sorrows,’ whom God associated with his Son as mother and participant in his Passion” (DPPL, 136). This devotion, focusing on seven particular incidents of sorrow in the Blessed Virgin’s life, is modeled on the Way of the Cross and was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The seven “stations” are as follows: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of the child Jesus in the temple; the meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross; the crucifixion; the taking down of the body of Jesus from the cross (the Pietà); and the burial of Jesus.

The DPPL identifies several themes from this pious exercise “that are proper to the Lenten season. Since the sorrows of Our Lady are caused by the rejection of her Son…the Via Matris constantly and necessarily refers to the mystery of Christ as the suffering servant (cf. Isaiah 52: 13-53:12). It also refers to the mystery of the Church: the stations of the Via Matris are stages on the journey of faith and sorrow on which the Virgin Mary has preceded the Church, and in which the Church journeys until the end of time” (137).

These devotions can help us enter more fully into the mystery of Lent: “In these forty days, Mother Church vests herself simply in violet. Her sacred halls are bare, and much of her gracious music is muted. Flowers at her altars and shrines are set aside…But this is her true springtime [the word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring”], when her children grow in grace, in ways often imperceptible, subtle and varied.

Lent thus reminds us that the great graces are given by God, not when our senses perceive them or when our hearts are full of consolations, but in the silence and stillness of “the night” (Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year According to the Modern Roman Rite, Bishop Peter Elliott, 53). Amen!

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.


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