Lent in a Secular Age
Lent is a whole season of self-denial, not just one action
The life of the Church has always been affected, for good and for ill, by historical circumstances and by the surrounding culture. Is Lent 'a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul' anymore?
When Pope St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461) called Lent "a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul," he had in mind more than retreating from the sweet plate in the office lunch room.
Our current age is no exception: When the Second Vatican Council called for "aggiornamento"—"updating"—in the Church, the stale and suffocating air of secularism rushed in her open windows and stifled much of the good that the Council had sought. A mere ten years after the Council—a blink of an eye in the life of the Church—Catholic belief and practice had been totally transformed.
The practice of Lent is one important example. No longer was a full forty day fast (which was essentially the current fast prescribed for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for the duration of Lent, though meat could be taken once daily except on Fridays) mandated under pain of mortal sin; it was hoped instead that the faithful would find more meaning in voluntary fasts and penances. This decision was akin to making homework optional for students—nearly all gave up on the old fast while forgetting the meaning of the word penance. Fortunately, one more broadly conceived Lenten sacrifice has been maintained: the good and pious practice of "giving something up"—food, drink, television programming—for Lent.
Yet the loss of fasting and penance is not Lent´s only casualty, for the pervading secular culture has transformed the very meaning of Lent itself. Today many Catholics do their level best to give up booze or chocolate, say a few extra prayers, and give a few extra dollars to charity, as well they should. But secularism has confined fasting, prayer, and almsgiving largely to private, individual practice, and these are limited to one or two per customer. Absolutely excluded from the "giving up" list are social festivities and special events of all kinds. As a result the normal, happy activities of the world—and even of the Church—proceed as usual this time of year, and they beckon our participation while in complete (though largely unwitting) ignorance of the austerity for which the Lenten season calls.
Thus trips to the movies, concerts, dinners out, and parties continue apace in Lent, even though these goods should be put on hold with candy and ice cream. Catholic weddings, once discouraged during Lent because of their great festivity, are now celebrated regularly in Lent, even on Fridays, which are officially the only penitential days left in the liturgical year. Recently, I stopped into a local Knights of Columbus hall on a Friday evening in Lent. Had a calendar not been handy, I would have thought it was Christmastide: the large, boisterous crowd was enjoying both the live music and the flowing bar. Stations of the Cross leaflets were nowhere to be found.
When Pope St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461) called Lent "a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul," he had in mind more than retreating from the sweet plate in the office lunch room. Lent for St. Leo and countless Christians before us meant retreating from all things sensually pleasing—be they food or social gatherings—so that, in St. Leo´s words, "with cleansed minds and purified bodies we may celebrate the all-excelling mystery of our Lord´s sacred passion." Writing in the 1950s, the great German liturgist Pius Parsch took for granted that "everyone will forego such pleasures as movies and the theater during the holy season." And lest we think such a broadly conceived fast not apply to us busy moderns, Pope Benedict XVI cited an ancient Lenten hymn in his 2009 message for Lent dedicated to fasting: "Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses." Lent, in other words, is an all-consuming enterprise, and it requires sacrifices both personal and social in order to fulfill its purpose, so beautifully stated by St. Leo.
Of course, this is not to say that Lent is best lived in a cave of total isolation withdrawn from any simulation of fun. Certain events that occur during Lent (such as birthdays) are worthy of celebration, and certain social gatherings (dinner at the boss´ house, for example) may well be unavoidable. But for the most part a season of penance means precisely what it sounds: a sustained period of prayer, reparation, and conversion apart from extraordinary events. Because of rigors of Lent weary the body and the mind, the Church in her wisdom provides breaks in the fasting regiment: Sundays are not fast days (there are 46 days total from Ash Wednesday to Easter; Sundays are not figured in the forty days), nor are the Solemnities of St. Joseph (March 19) and of the Annunciation (March 25). These are feast days within the Lenten season, and they are to be celebrated joyfully in their own right, for they are celebrations of our redemption.
But Lent is preparation for redemption, and redemption was not free or easy. Redemption cost our Lord His life, and he paid it with every ounce of His being. In Lent we share in Christ´s passion, so our Lent, to the degree that we are able, should be lived to the full—both privately and socially. That may mean foregoing dinners out, or postponing a visit to the O´Reagans until Eastertide, or planning a family gathering on Sunday afternoon rather than on Saturday, or skipping the town´s spring festival all together. These are small sacrifices, but they are noble and holy; they also purify our minds from worldly preoccupations so that we can better contemplate the spiritual mysteries to which Lent leads. And they are also small steps that may help rescue Lent from its secular captivity.
The objections ring out: Did not Vatican II place a greater emphasis on baptism in Lent rather than penance? Are we not an Easter people made for rejoicing? Is not giving up all these things a bit excessive? We are indeed made for rejoicing; but in order to experience the joy of Easter we—in imitation of our Lord—must pass through Good Friday, and that includes undergoing serious sacrifices on the way to a real death: a death to sin, to the world, and to self.
Vatican II´s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did call for a renewed emphasis on baptism, that is, on new life with the risen Christ, and rightfully so. But the Constitution describes baptism and penance together, since they both have the same aim: putting away the old man of sin, the necessary precondition of new life in the resurrection. The Constitution adds that during Lent "penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social" (110).
Thus the Council confirms that cultural sacrifices are as essential as individual sacrifices—they remind us that the world belongs to the Lord, and that we are not alone in our Lenten journey. Secularism should not dictate the tone of Lent; rather our Lent should set the tone for our challenge to the world. When we give up the best of what this world has to offer, we remind it, and ourselves, that this world is not our ultimate fulfillment. And this leads us to what Lent is really all about: conversion.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for January 2015
General Intention: That those from diverse religious traditions and all people of good will may work together for peace.
Missionary Intention: That in this year dedicated to consecrated life, religious men and women may rediscover the joy of following Christ and strive to serve the poor with zeal.
Rate This Article
Leave a Comment
More Lent / Easter News
- 4th Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross
- 3rd Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns
- Good Friday Reflection on the Nature of Sin
- Lent is almost over, but have YOU kept this Commandment?
- 5th Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion
- Holy Thursday: Take Up the Basin and Towel. Love is a Verb.
- Holy Thursday: He Loves to the End
- 2nd Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar
- The Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ
- Fr. Paul Schenck: Finding Living Faith on Catechetical Sunday
- The Movie Yellow: Incest as 'Normal' and Cassavates's Slides Into the World of Woes
- The Chicago School Teachers Strike Reveals the Need For School Choice
- The Sexual Barbarians and the Dissolution of Culture
- The Happy Priest Challenges Us to Ask: Who is Jesus to Me?
- Michael Coren on Canadian Public Schools: Teachers, leave those kids alone
- We Cannot Ignore Our Consciences: Cardinal Dolan On Religious Liberty
- In the Face of Danger, Successor of Peter Travels to Lebanon as a Messenger of Peace
- Reflections on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Who or What?
More Easter / Lent
'So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead' - Luke 24:46
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. continue reading
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in all four canonical Gospels. (Mark 11:1.11, Matthew 21:1.11, Luke 19:28.44, and John 12:12.19) ... continue reading
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the first joy of the season, as we celebrate Our Lord's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem where he was welcomed by crowds worshiping him and laying down palm leaves before him. It also marks the beginning of Holy Week... continue reading
HOLY THURSDAY is the most complex and profound of all religious observances. It celebrates his last supper with the disciples, a celebration of Passover ... continue reading
On Good Friday, each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption. In the solemn ceremonies of Holy Week we unite ourselves to our Savior, and we contemplate our own death to sin in the Death of our Lord ... continue reading
Easter is the principal feast of the ecclesiastical year. Leo I (Sermo xlvii in Exodum) calls it the greatest feast (festum festorum), and says that Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter. It is the centre of the greater part of the ecclesiastical year ... continue reading
For most people the easiest practice to consistently fulfill will be the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere. Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk. 5:35). continue reading
Everything answered from when does lent end, ashes, giving something up, stations of the cross and blessed palms. The key to understanding the meaning of Lent is simple: Baptism... continue reading
Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. First Station: Jesus is condemned to death... pray the stations now
What did you give up for Lent?
From the humorous to the bizarre, people have had interesting Lenten experiences. Tell us about what you are going to give up for this Lenten Year.
What others gave up »
Jennifer Hartline - Catholic Online, 4/18/2014
This Sorrowful pilgrimage now brings me here to this lonely hill. All the agony, the beatings and the bleeding have led me somewhere I do not want to go; somewhere I resist going with all my ...Continue Reading
Jennifer Hartline - Catholic Online, 4/18/2014
I wonder if perhaps it was tempting for Jesus to just lie down on the dirt road and die right there. Completely sapped of strength and in agonizing pain, I wonder if He was tempted by the ...Continue Reading
Jennifer Hartline - Catholic Online, 4/18/2014
Humiliation, in one form or another, is part of the package. It is only avoidable if we decide to deny Christ. WASHINGTON, D.C. (Catholic Online) - 3rd Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning ...Continue Reading
Michael Terheyden - Catholic Online, 4/18/2014
The Passion of Christ represents the most atrocious miscarriage of justice in all of human history. So when we come face to face with the crucified Christ on Good Friday, it is only natural for us to ...Continue Reading
On Good Friday, the entire Church fixes her gaze on the Cross at Calvary. Each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption.
In the symbol of the Cross we can see the magnitude of the human tragedy, the ravages of original sin, and the infinite love of God. Learn More
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. Learn More
Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion.
ACT OF CONTRITION. O my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at Thy feet. From the bottom of my heart... Pray the Stations
'Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed' Lk. 5:35
Abstinence. The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted.
Fasting. The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday (Canon 97) to the 59th Birthday (i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday) to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal.
Learn More »