By Fr. Stephen Rossey, O. Praem.
The Meaning of “Lent”
Some authors say that the word “Lent” is derived from the word “lengthen.” Seasonally, this means that the days are getting longer, that they are lengthening. We are heading toward spring.
Environmentally, in the Church year, this is the time for spring house cleaning. Getting rid of all that is not necessary. Putting out of sight those things that might distract us from the task at hand.
Some authors refer to Lent as the “desert experience.” A desert is a barren, dry, quiet place. One only hears the whisper of the wind and the shifting of sand. The days are hot by day and cold at night. Most Lenten days are cloudless with a myriad of stars at night—a cosmic fast and feast. It’s a time of deprivation and promise—a reminder of death and the promise of new life.
Lent, like all the seasons of the year—and much like life itself—is a paradox. A balancing of opposites. That’s why I say it’s time for spring cleaning. It’s time to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to solitude, contemplation, and memories.
Fr. John Buscemi, an artist and liturgical space consultant, writes that Lent is built on images of ashes, thirst, emptiness, and promise. Memories can help us unlock this power. But memories require solitude—an aloneness beyond loneliness. And solitude is necessary for creativity, reflection, and understanding.
… A cosmic fast and feast. It’s a time of deprivation and promise—a reminder of death and the promise of new life.
—Fr. Stephen Rossey, O. Praem.
I like to think of Ash Wednesday as a memento mori—a reminder of death. Our American culture does not like reminders of death and I think that is sad. Death is the counterpart of the paradox of life. We don’t have one without the other. “Unless the grain of wheat falls to ground and dies—it cannot live.”
Reminders of our mortality are good for us. They keep us thinking straight and value orientated. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about—last year’s palms, from the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday becoming this year’s ashes—a reminder of the life/death cycle.
The imposition of ashes in the form of a big, bold cross on our foreheads is a reminder to all that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” Medieval artists depicted this reality on their tomb engravings. They often pictured a skeleton speaking to the viewer: “What you are, I once was. What I am, you will become.” The acrid smell of burnt fronds reminds us of our own decomposition and of this reality.
The purpose of the use of incense during Lent is to carry prayer heavenwards, and in this sense it is a symbol of the priestly office. Incense, with its sweet-smelling perfume and high-ascending smoke, is typical of the good Christian’s prayer, which, enkindled in the heart by the fire of God’s love and exhaling the odor of Christ, rises up a pleasing offering in His sight (cf. Amalarius, De eccles. officiis in P.L., CV).
Purple is the liturgical color of the Lenten season. The color purple is often a symbol for royalty, wealth, or status. In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 15:16), Roman soldiers clothed Jesus in purple before scourging him and crucifying him. In this sense, they were mocking his supposed royalty. Although they were clearly doing this as a mockery it’s also a bit ironic since Jesus was, in fact, royalty.
Sacrament of the Sick
The Sacrament of the Sick is frequently celebrated during the season of Lent, especially for oneself or for those who are dear to us. In the anointing ceremony myrrh is used in the blessed oil. Myrrh is the gum or viscid white liquid that flows from the acacia tree, found in Africa and Arabia. It was a custom of the Jews to give it to those who were condemned to death by crucifixion. Myrrh is commonly interpreted as symbolizing kingship, due to its use as an anointing oil, or death, due to its use as an embalming oil. Its perfume will quiet one’s anxiety and impart calmness.
Fitting devotions during the season of Lent are:
- devotion to Mary, as the Mother of the Crucified Christ, Our Lady of Sorrows
- the rosary, especially with meditation on the sorrowful mysteries of Christ
- the Stations of the Cross
Fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving are long-standing traditions, as well as the practice of the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy, which Pope Francis so enthusiastically encourages.