By Rev. Fr Anthony Aneke
On March 2nd, the Lenten season begins with the Ash Wednesday. It is fast approaching. Now is the time to start preparing for it. How do you prepare for Lent? How have you prepared in the past? What are your ideas about what should happen during Lent? Do not let yourself to be caught off guard and left making weak or trivial Lenten resolutions and sacrifices in an effort just to have something quickly. Remember, that Lent or any penitential season, like Advent can be fully taken advantage of by performing three practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. However, before one can take full advantage of the Lenten season by preparing for it, one has to comprehend what the Lenten season stands for in one’s spiritual life.
The Lent Season
As an important religious observance in the Christian world, Lent is the season to observe and commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of God, our Savior and Redeemer. It is an opportune time to reflect on what it means to be a follower of Christ. Likewise, an opportunity to repent for our misdeeds and misgivings and to increase the intensity of our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, practice of our faith and welcoming others as our brothers and sisters in our faith community. Lent is a time to grow in and strengthen our faith, which binds us together and makes all things possible because of our love and devotion to Jesus.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten Season. In this holy season, Christians all over the world begin a spiritual journey of repentance marked by prayer, penance and almsgiving and other forms of charitable works. The placing of ash on our fore heads with the words, “dust you are and unto dust you shall return” or “repent and believe the gospel”, reminds us of the ephemeral nature of human life and of course the need to participate more intimately in the suffering of our Lord Jesus, in preparation of the celebration of the solemn feast of his resurrection at Easter which is a foretaste of our individual resurrection at the eschaton.
The Lenten period begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. When we exclude Sundays, that makes usually for a total of forty days. The number forty is primarily and richly symbolic. The earliest reference we have to a forty day preparation for Easter is in the canons of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). One of the most compact expressions of its meaning however appears in the work of St. John Cassian in the fifth century. He describes Lent as “the tithes of the year”, because it is roughly a tenth of the days in a year. We give those days to the Lord as a special offering; and in doing so; we imitate his own fast, as he intended us to do. Cassian also notes the Old Testament models of Israel in the wilderness, of Moses and Elijah, who also underwent forty days fast.
The Church extensively encourages her members to follow the Lenten custom of fasting by “giving something up”, preferably favorite food or pastime to which we are unduly attached. We may also stop eating between meals or forgo second helpings. We return it to God for forty days, not because any of it is ‘bad’, but because it is indeed very good. Only good things should be offered in sacrifice to God. Only the best is offered as a tithe. We give them to God so that we learn not to put anything in God’s place in our lives. We do not only fast with food. It should extend to other things that give certain pleasures – habits and certain vices. We can start with certain vices we need to do away with like; lies, stealing, anger, etc. As such, we can get over them and it becomes gain for us.
Preparing for the Lenten Season: Prayer, Penance and Almsgiving
Prayer, Penance and Almsgiving remain the contents of the Lenten Season. They are the pillars of which the Lenten season stands.
Prayer remains “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” It is an act of the moral virtue of religion, which Catholic theologians identify as part of the cardinal virtue of justice. Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily last year, ‘Lent is a privilege time for prayer.’ He quoted St. Augustine, who described fasting and almsgiving as “the two wings of prayer,” because they are signs of humility and charity. Prayers offers us all a very special opportunity to grow in our relationship with God and to deepen our commitment to a way of life, rooted in our baptism. In our busy world, prayer provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon our patterns and sins. We should pray more deeply, experience sorrow for what we have done and failed to do, and to be generous to those in need.
If your prayer life is already healthy and robust, Keep it up. But during Lent, find ways to increase your daily prayers, even if only by a few minutes each day. Perhaps by praying certain novenas for people in your life and an extra decade of the rosary for the conversion of sinners.
FASTING AND ABSTINENCE
On all Fridays throughout the year, Catholics are still required to abstain from meat. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (with exceptions for expectant women, for example) are required to fast. We do this by having only one full meal that day and two smaller meals that, added together, do not amount to a full meal. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, fasting serves three purposes, which are of particular importance during Lent:
- To conquer lust: First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): “In fasting, in chastity,” since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For…lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink. So, this act of denial helps us to gain temperance in all areas of our life.
- To help our minds rise above material things and contemplate heavenly realities: Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related of Daniel (Daniel 10) that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks. So, when we are not concerned or preoccupied with material things like food or drink, we can more easily turn our attention and focus towards God.
- To atone for our sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): “Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.” The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”
So, by putting ourselves through some bodily pains and discomforts, we can make effective acts of penance and reparations for our sins.
Giving alms, Jesus teaches, means making the needs of others our own, especially the needy of our world, they are all around us: Children and the old, the sick and the suffering, families and individuals, next-door neigbours and people in lands faraway. Whatever we give should be something of ourselves, something that costs us. We will receive blessings from God. What it means is that Almsgiving is a tangible sacrifice. If there isn’t some personal discomfort in doing it, then what are you actually meriting? Sacrifice is meant to be uncomfortable. It’s through this discomfort, yet open willingness and joy of doing it for the sake of God, that we reap the benefits.
What shall we give to the needy this lent? In deciding, decide generously. After all, before us is the great alms Jesus gave: “He loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Specific preparing before Lenten season (introspection)
But you might think, how do I prepare myself for this season? What needs to happen within so that I can practice with more integrity and intention whatever I’m doing on the outside?
There are plenty of ideas for actions and practices during Lent; coming up with ideas usually is not the problem. But we don’t want to do anything simply to be doing it, even if it’s a good thing. We don’t want to make a list of merciful works so that we can place a checkmark beside each one as we accomplish it.
It’s good to have a plan for doing. It’s also good to have a plan for being.
How do I want to be during Lent this year? More quiet and thoughtful? More open to God’s desires? Better able to sit with people who need me? More attentive to sacred readings, whether in church or in private? Do I need to be more compassionate toward my own fears and failings? Do I need to become more courageous about using the gifts God has given me?
In the days prior to Lent, try one or more of these suggestions.
- Ask God, every day, “What does my soul need?” Just ask, and wait quietly. Because we’re very good at fooling ourselves about how we’re doing, it might take several days of praying this question before we’re truly open and humble enough to know the answer.
- Ask God, every day, “What about my life makes you happy?” Yes, when God looks at your life, some parts of it—perhaps many aspects of it—bring joy to God’s heart. Think of how your children or grandchildren or other people close to you make you happy. God is in relationship with you, which means that your sins grieve God’s heart, but also that your growth and love and freedom and kindness bring joy to God of the universe. Again, you will probably need to pray this a few times before you are willing to consider that you give God pleasure, that you make God happy in any way. Stick with this little prayer and keep listening.
- Tell God, and yourself, every day, “I want to be open to the graces of this Lenten season.” Maybe you’re not open right now, or you’re not as open and willing as you’d like to be or think you should be. What else is new? We can always open our lives a bit more, let go of more stuff, listen better, and do more quickly and passionately what we know helps nurture God’s kingdom on earth.
This is a beginning: three short and simple prayer starters to ready yourself for the holy season.
Finally, the book “Meditations for Lent” is quite resourceful in preparing for the Lenten season. I have found this small book to be a wonderful resource for Lent.It begins on Septuagesima Sunday and continues through Easter Sunday. I think you can get it at the Pauline Bookshop at Holy Ghost Cathedral Enugu or you can down the entire PDF format to your tablet, smartphone or PC or even print the entire book out.
Lent can seem quite daunting to many people, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With just a bit of planning ahead anyone can have a successful and fruitful Lent filled with many graces.
May your Lenten preparation be fruitful this year. Amen