The Holy Season of Lent

Condensed from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger OSB

II. The Mystery of Lent

We may be sure that a season so sacred as Lent is rich in mysteries. The Church has made it a time of recollection and penance, in preparation for the greatest of all her feasts; she would, therefore, bring into it everything that could excite the faith of her children, and encourage them to go through the arduous work of atonement for their sins. During Septuagesima, we had the number seventy, which reminds us of those seventy years of captivity in Babylon, after which God's chosen people, being purified from idolatry, were to return to Jerusalem and celebrate the Pasch. It is the number forty that the Church now brings before us: a number, as St. Jerome observes, which denotes punishment and affliction.

Let us remember the forty days and forty nights of the deluge (Gen. 7, 12) sent by God in His anger, when He repented that He had made man, and destroyed the whole human race with the exception of one family. Let us consider how the Hebrew people, in punishment for their ingratitude, wandered forty years in the desert, before they were permitted to enter the promised land (Num. 14, 33). Let us listen to our God commanding the Prophet Ezechiel to lie forty days on his right side, as a figure of the siege which was to bring destruction on Jerusalem (Ezech. 4, 6).

There are two persons in the Old Testament who represent the two manifestations of God: Moses, who typifies the Law; and Elias, who is the figure of the Prophets. Both of these are permitted to approach God: the first on Sinai (Exod. 24, 18), the second on Horeb (3 Kings 19, 8); but both of them have to prepare for the great favor by an expiatory fast of forty days.

With these mysterious facts before us, we can understand why it is that the Son of God, having become Man for our salvation and wishing to subject Himself to the pain of fasting, chose the number of forty days. Let us now learn, from the Liturgy, in what light the Church views her children during these forty days. She considers them as an immense army, fighting day and night against their spiritual enemies. We remember how, on Ash Wednesday, she calls Lent a Christian warfare. In order that we may have that newness of life, which will make us worthy to sing once more our Alleluia, we must conquer our three enemies: the devil, the flesh, and the world. We are fellow combatants with our Jesus, for He, too, was subject to the triple temptation, suggested to Him by Satan in person. Therefore, we must have on our armor, and watch unceasingly.

The Church would also have our minds engrossed with thoughts of the deepest import; and for this end she puts before us three great subjects, which she will gradually unfold to us between this and the great Easter solemnity. Let us be all attentive to these soul-stirring and instructive lessons.

First, there is the conspiracy of the Jews against our Redeemer. It will be brought before us in its whole history, from its first formation to its final consummation on the great Friday, when we shall behold the Son of God hanging on the wood of the Cross. The infamous workings of the Synagogue will be brought before us so regularly, that we shall be able to follow the plot in all its details. We shall be inflamed with love for the august Victim, whose meekness, wisdom, and dignity bespeak a God. The divine drama, which began in the cave of Bethlehem, is to close on Calvary; we may assist at it, by meditating on the passages of the Gospel read to us by the Church during these days of Lent.

The second of the subjects offered to us for our instruction, requires that we should remember how the feast of Easter is to be the day of new birth for our catechumens, and how, in the early ages of the Church, Lent was the immediate and solemn preparation given to the candidates for Baptism. The holy liturgy of the present season retains much of the instruction she used to give to the catechumens; and as we listen to her magnificent lessons from both the Old and the New Testament, whereby she completed their initiation, we ought to think with gratitude of our own Baptism.

Third, we must remember how, formerly, the public penitents, who had been separated on Ash Wednesday from the assembly of the faithful, were the object of the Church's maternal solicitude during the whole forty days of Lent, and were to be admitted to reconciliation on Maundy Thursday, if their repentance were such as to merit this public forgiveness. We shall have the admirable course of instructions, which were originally designed for these penitents, and which the liturgy, faithful as it ever is to such traditions, still retains for our sake. As we read these sublime passages of the Scripture, we shall naturally think upon our own sins, and on what easy terms they were pardoned us; whereas, had we lived in other times, we should have probably been put through the ordeal of a public and severe penance. This will excite us to fervor, for we shall remember that, whatever changes the indulgence of the Church may lead her to make in her discipline, the justice of our God is ever the same. We shall find in all this an additional motive for offering to His Divine Majesty the sacrifice of a contrite heart, and we shall go through our penances with that cheerful eagerness, which the conviction of our deserving much severer ones always brings with it.

There were liturgical ceremonies peculiar to the season of Lent, which were observed in the Churches of the West, but which have now, for many centuries, fallen into general disuse. Of these rites, the most imposing was that of putting up a large veil between the choir and the altar, so that neither clergy nor people could look upon the holy mysteries celebrated within this smaller sanctuary. This veil – which was called the Curtain, and, generally speaking, was of a purple color – was a symbol of the penance to which the sinner ought to subject himself, in order to merit the sight of that Divine Majesty, before whose face he had committed so many outrages. It signified, moreover, the humiliations endured by our Redeemer, who was a stumbling-block to the proud Synagogue. But as a veil that is suddenly drawn aside, these humiliations were to give way, and be changed into the glories of the Resurrection.

It was the custom also, in many churches, to veil the crucifix and the statues of the saints as soon as Lent began; in order to excite the faithful to a livelier sense of penance, they were deprived of the consolation which the sight of these holy images always brings to the soul. But this custom was less general than the more expressive one used in the Roman Church – the veiling of the crucifix and statues only in Passiontide.

We learn from the ceremonials of the Middle Ages that, during Lent, and particularly on the Wednesdays and Fridays, processions used frequently to be made from one church to another. In monasteries, these processions were made in the cloister, and barefooted. This custom was suggested by the practice of Rome, where there is a Station for every day of Lent, which, for many centuries, began by a procession to the stational church.