WHAT IS LENT?
Embracing Lent is Preparing for Easter
Lent is a period of 40 weekdays that starts each year on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter Sunday. It is a time when we are invited to seek the Lord in prayer and reading Scripture, to service by giving alms, and to sacrificing self-control through fasting. Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is also highly encouraged. The liturgical color for Lent is purple, a color that signifies a deep penitence and royalty.
Shrove Tuesday (February 13, 2018), sometimes called Pancake Tuesday or Mardi Gras, marks the end of our annual preLenten journey. It is a festive day in anticipation of Lent, traditionally a time when households cleared their supply of rich foods by feasting on them.
While the Catholic Church in America does not enforce Holy Days of Obligation (when RCC faithful are expected to attend Mass), Ash Wednesday is a day when many Catholics do attend either Mass or an Ash Wednesday service. The Ash Wednesday Mass or service includes readings and the blessing and distribution of ashes, which takes the place of the penitential rite. We receive the sign of the cross in ashes (a sacramental) on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality. The minister applying ashes says, “We are dust and to dust we shall return,” or a similar phrase. There is no Holy Communion during this service. The assembly leaves the church in silence. (Learn more about sacramentals)
FASTING AND ABSTINENCE
Fasting and abstinence prepare us physically for the spiritual work of prayer and penance during Lent. Fasting: To fast is to limit the amount of food eaten to only one full meal and two smaller meals during the day, as well as refraining from snacks. The two small meals should not equal one regular meal. The frail, pregnant, and people who do heavy manual labor are excused from the obligation to fast. All other Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence: Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, including Good Friday, are set aside for abstinence. Catholics over the age of 14 traditionally refrain from eating meat on these days. Some choose to undertake an additional personal abstinence during Lent, such as giving up sweets, a favorite TV show or drinking sodas. Personal abstinence should be acts that draw you closer to God; for instance, giving up watching your favorite TV show would you give you more time to devote to prayer or giving up sweets or drinking sodas would give you more money to give to the poor. Many parishes typically hold Friday fried fish dinners at area churches during Lent, with proceeds supporting their service programs.
PRAYER AND PENANCE
All of the faithful are required to fulfill their Easter Duty during the Easter Season (which continues through Pentecost, May 20, 2018). Prayer: The faithful are always encouraged to pray more frequently, and Lent is a good time to explore different forms of prayer. Holy Cross has Centering Prayer, Eucharistic Adoration and the Rosary each week throughout the year. During Lent, Stations of the Cross are prayed on Friday evenings, 7-8:00 p.m. Some people add attending daily Mass during Lent, or pray the readings at home if they cannot get to daily Mass.
The sacrament of reconciliation remains a significant sacrament in the Church. Catholics who have made their First Communion should receive the Sacrament of Penance (also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and Holy Eucharist sometime during the Easter Season. The Sacrament of Penance calls us to examine our consciences, to identify those ways in which we are not in right relationship with God and with others. Churches in the Diocese of Raleigh hold numerous Reconciliation Services at which priests from several parishes are available to hear confessions.
Almsgiving is one of the three pillars of Lent; fasting and prayer are the other two. The call of Christians to charity is a frequent theme of the Gospels. During Lent, the Church asks that we focus more intently on almsgiving, which is donating money or goods to the poor and performing other acts of charity. The Church offers opportunities for almsgiving through stewardship and Social Action throughout the year, with the additional opportunity of contributing to the campaign during Lent.
HOLY WEEK AND EASTER TRIDUUM
The week preceding Easter Sunday is known as Holy Week – which is the final week of Lent. It begins with Palm Sunday and ends with the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. Special liturgies on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are known as the Triduum. Though chronologically three days, the Triduum is liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
On Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s last supper with the disciples – the first Holy Communion – and institution of the priesthood, typically commemorated by the symbolic washing of the feet of parish community representatives. After distribution of the Eucharist, the altar is stripped and the assembly leaves the sanctuary in silence, processing to the altar of repose where the consecrated Communion hosts are reserved, for use during the Good Friday liturgy, on the following day. Individuals are welcome to remain for private prayer.
Good Friday is the day Catholics and other Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, with a reading of the Passion of Christ, veneration of the cross, and a Communion service at which hosts consecrated at the Holy Thursday Mass are distributed. During the Veneration of the Cross, the faithful pay the highest honor to our Lord’s cross as the instrument of our salvation by processing to the cross, kneeling or bowing before it and kissing the wood of the cross. This solemn Liturgy ends with the altar left bare and the assembly leaving in silence. There are no Masses during the day on Holy Saturday.
The Easter Vigil is held between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. The Mass begins with the faithful assembled outside the church, gathered around an Easter fire where the Paschal candle is blessed and lit. They then process into the darkened church, where the Exultet (proclamation of Easter) is sung followed by the Liturgy of the Word, including at least three Old Testament readings and two New Testament readings which lead us to meditate on our salvation history. Following the final Old Testament reading, the altar candles are lit, the church lights are turned on, and the bells rung. We are exultant with joy at the resurrection of Jesus. New members are received into the church through the rites of Baptism and Confirmation, and the assembled renew their baptismal promises. The Mass continues with the Eucharist, at which the new members receive Holy Eucharist for the first time. At the end of the Liturgy the assembly says, “Amen” to end the Triduum.
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Michael Callahan is the Presiding Archbishop for the Catholic Church in America. He is dedicated to spreading the Word of God, in the spirit of love, throughout the world. Bishop Callahan is also the author of "Authentic Faith, Radical Transformation, and Contemplative Prayer," an eBook available on Amazon.com.
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