The Catholic is entering the second of three principal feasts of the Ecclesiastical Year. Just as the Jews of old observed feasts besides the Sabbath to commemorate important events in their history, so Christ fulfills this tradition when the Catholic Church annually recalls events in Our Lord's life on earth with vivid representations, especially in the ceremonies during Holy Week (Spirago and Clark, 1921). The aspect of nature corresponds to these festivals. In Advent the nights are longer than the days and the life of vegetation is awaiting its break from dormancy as in the spiritual order before the coming of Christ. After Christmas the days begin to lengthen as the birth of Christ brings light to the world. At Easter nature awakens to new life during spring as Christ rises gloriously from the dead. At Pentecost vegetation is in full beauty of leaf and blossom as the coming of the Holy Spirit brings a fresh era for mankind with the birth of the Church (Spirago and Clark, 1921).
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Dia del Mal Ejemplo (made that last one up), are terms that, to some, describe the last day of 'freedom' before Lent begins the following morning, Ash Wednesday. However this was not always the case in Catholic history. For many Catholics 40 days of Lent would begin 50, 60, even 70 days before the blessed event. So let's quickly go through the Lenten season.
First of all, the main event is Easter Sunday, the day Jesus Christ - God incarnate, defeated death and rose from the dead on His own Divine Power. The Feast of the Resurrection is what Lent functions to prepare the soul for. Why is this such an important day to mankind? Is it because we perform our social economic responsibility each year to help the global chocolate economy? Do we merely enjoy the ritual of dressing up and going to mass as a folksy family tradition? Is it the thought of having family spend a day of feverishly turning over rocks and dead branches to snatch up a coveted piece of candy? Although these predictable happenings on Easter seem like the only result of our celebrations, the cosmic event of the Resurrection of the Divine Redeemer sends spiritual shock waves through the cosmos.
The Resurrection is the shot that was heard across the universe. Without the Resurrection, life would be a primitive, dark, and barbaric underworld. We see how only in the nations who have rejected the Resurrection, their life has been a primitive violent world. On the other hand, the nations that embraced the Resurrection have flourished with the light of Christ. Those same western nations, now turning full circle and threatening to deny the Resurrection, are seeing their world change before their eyes into an empty shell of itself. A wilted rose under a dark cloud. Why is the denial of the Resurrection such an afront against God? Why is the denial of Christ seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven such a rude gesture of ingratitude? Why does our civilization begin to fall apart on itself when it denies the Saviour's works?
It can be revealed in what the Redeemer left for us, His Church, when She reminds us each year of the gratitude we owe to God and our dependence upon Him each Lent. It is chiefly during Lent that we embrace in the sufferings that Christ endured to save the world. Only by sharing in Christ's Passion can we truly appreciate His accomplishment. The accomplishment of correcting a wrong by a finite being - Adam against an infinite Being - God the Creator. For 4,000 years the human race awaited for the Lord to come. When the Messiah arrived in a manger in Bethlehem, He was the long awaited Redeemer promised by God to Adam and Eve, and the fulfillment of Israel's hope.
However, when we commemorate the Incarnation on Christmas Day, the Nativity only marks the beginning of Christ's works. His greatest achievement in terms of cosmic significance to the human race was his Passion, Death, and Resurrection into Heaven. Like a father who grueled a blizzard to bring his starving children food for the winter, Christ was scourged, humiliated, and crucified to bring His spiritually starved children the food of the Sacraments and the means of salvation. The father after accomplishing his task, awaits his children to accomplish their's - to simply chew the food the father provided. God's children, who now have the long awaited nourishment at our fingertips must do our part to reap the benefits of our Lord's sacrifice just as the child chews the long awaited food to nourish their starving bodies. The graces received during Lent are received only by the grace of the Precious Blood of Christ - His suffering and death.
The preparation for Lent includes the three Sundays called respectively, Septuagesima (70 days), Sexagesima (60 days), and Quinquagesima (50 days before Easter). They were so named because in the early days of Christianity many communities began the fast seventy, sixty, or seventy days before Easter. The Wednesday after Quinquagesima is called Ash Wednesday because of the ceremony of sprinkling ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful. On Ash Wednesday the season of Lent commences (Spirago and Clark, 1921). It is 46 days before Easter, thus the number of days is completed without the six Sundays, on which we do not fast - they are true days of rest.
Lent beginning on Septuagesima Sunday, that is, 3 weeks before Easter, has its roots in Eastern tradition. The Eastern calendar regarded both Saturday and Sunday as festival days, and therefore as exempt from the Lenten fast. So in order to complete the forty days of Lent, the Greeks anticipated the penitential season by some weeks, and from this Sunday (70 days before Easter) onward abstained from meat. When the Latin Rite began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the devout wished for more. St. Gregory therefore instituted, or at least gave definite form to a cycle of three weeks' preparation for Lent - Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays (Lasance, 1945).
During Lent the public life of Our Lord is set before us - His forty day fast in the desert, His Passion and death. And so we continue with the second season of the Ecclesiastical Year. We recall Our Lord's life on earth as we fast 40 days with Christ and at Easter rise again with Him (Spirago and Clark, 1921).
In preparation for Lent, the Catholic can therefore legitimately begin Lenten meditations, abstain from meat, fast, or perform other penitential and spiritual devotions as early as Septuagesima. A great devotion for preparing for Lent, and subsequently, Easter, is the meditation on the Way of the Cross. In this devotion, an individual or group passes from station to station reciting prayers and meditating on each incident, or at least on the passion of Christ in general . It is thought that the Stations originated as a way that those unable to travel might follow the pilgrimage route in Jerusalem, the "Via Dolorosa" (The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia). The best method, I have found, is to set aside at least a 1/2 to 1 hour's time inside a quiet Catholic Church that displays reverent artistic representayions of the 14 Stations of the Cross on its walls. A prayer book or meditation guide covering the 14 Stations, should have a description of the Station, a reflection, and accompanying prayers to spiritually participate in Christ's Via Dolorosa.
If a Catholic Church is not available, a good online source is 'The Way of the Cross in Jerusalem'. Maintained by The Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta on Franciscan Cyberspot. The individual can view online the actual sacred sites in Jerusalem that make up the Way of the Cross. From home one can pray and meditate at each Station. The website points out:
"It is essentially a devotional exercise, a means which men and women can use to make contact with God, to adore Him, to thank Him, to increase their love for Him. Devotion to the sufferings of Christ, is particularly recommended for all who wish to live "upon the model of that charity which Christ showed to us when he gave himself up on our behalf" (Eph 6,2) . . . what really matters is to follow Christ on the Way of the Cross of his Passion, as humble companions."
Rev. Spirago, Francis; Rev. Clarke, Richard F. S.J., 1899. The Catechism Explained - An Exhaustive Exposition of the Catholic Religion; Tan Books and Publisher, Inc. 1993; p. 359-361.
Rev. Lasance, Francis Xavier, 1945. The New Roman Missal. Christian Book Club of America 1993; p. 1641.