Monthly Archives: March 2014

Meditation on St Joseph, model of virtues

St Joseph, husband of Mary and guardian of the Holy Family is a man of many virtues. In this meditation we consider some of them with the aim of striving to imitate St Joseph and to grow in devotion to him.

The origin of Lent

We are now in the great season of Lent and we all have a general idea of what it is about. But how many know the history of this season and how the practice has changed over the years? I post here one of my columns in the Catholic Weekly on the topic, taken from my book Question Time 1. 

143. The origin of Lent

I have always been curious to know the origin of Lent. For example, where does the name come from and for how long has the Church been celebrating it?

The name Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning springtime. The application of that name to our season of preparation for Easter is undoubtedly due to the fact that Lent is celebrated in Spring in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, it remains an appropriate name since, if Lent is lived well, it represents a true springtime, a new growth, in the spiritual life.

The celebration of Lent goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. In fact, St Leo the Great in the fifth century speaks of it having been instituted by the apostles. Traditionally, it has always been lived with a greater attention to the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the first three centuries the period of fasting was limited to one or two days, or a week at most. The first mention of 40 days was in the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), but by the end of the fourth century the custom was widespread in both East and West. The number of 40 days is obviously taken from Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer before beginning his public life.

As regards the symbolism, St Augustine writes that the season of Lent symbolises this present life on earth, with its trials and tribulations, and the season of Easter symbolises the joys of the life to come.

In the East, the period of fasting was spread over seven weeks, with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West the period was six weeks, with Sundays exempt, leaving only 36 days of fasting. It was in the seventh century in the West that Lent was begun four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, so that there would be 40 days of fasting as there are today. Sundays are not included in the 40 days.

From the fifth century on, the fast was very strict. Only one meal was allowed, toward evening. Meat was not allowed, even on Sundays. Flesh meat and fish, and in most places eggs and dairy products were absolutely forbidden. This is still the case in the Eastern tradition, where no vertebrates or products of vertebrates may be eaten, ruling out meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.

Over time the rules of fasting gradually evolved. Eventually, a smaller meal was allowed during the day to keep up one’s strength for manual labour. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed altogether. However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Before the Second Vatican Council, adults fasted on all the 40 days of Lent, eating only one full meal and two smaller meals, and they abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. At present in Australia the required penance has been reduced to fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat may be eaten on the other Fridays of Lent.

Nonetheless, the faithful are encouraged to choose from the areas of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so that they may unite themselves with Christ on all the 40 days of Lent in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The name Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning springtime. The application of that name to our season of preparation for Easter is undoubtedly due to the fact that Lent is celebrated in Spring in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, it remains an appropriate name since, if Lent is lived well, it represents a true springtime, a new growth, in the spiritual life.

The celebration of Lent goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. In fact, St Leo the Great in the fifth century speaks of it having been instituted by the apostles. Traditionally, it has always been lived with a greater attention to the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the first three centuries the period of fasting was limited to one or two days, or a week at most. The first mention of 40 days was in the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), but by the end of the fourth century the custom was widespread in both East and West. The number of 40 days is obviously taken from Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer before beginning his public life.

As regards the symbolism, St Augustine writes that the season of Lent symbolises this present life on earth, with its trials and tribulations, and the season of Easter symbolises the joys of the life to come.

In the East, the period of fasting was spread over seven weeks, with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West the period was six weeks, with Sundays exempt, leaving only 36 days of fasting. It was in the seventh century in the West that Lent was begun four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, so that there would be 40 days of fasting as there are today. Sundays are not included in the 40 days.

From the fifth century on, the fast was very strict. Only one meal was allowed, toward evening. Meat was not allowed, even on Sundays. Flesh meat and fish, and in most places eggs and dairy products were absolutely forbidden. This is still the case in the Eastern tradition, where no vertebrates or products of vertebrates may be eaten, ruling out meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.

Over time the rules of fasting gradually evolved. Eventually, a smaller meal was allowed during the day to keep up one’s strength for manual labour. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed altogether. However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Before the Second Vatican Council, adults fasted on all the 40 days of Lent, eating only one full meal and two smaller meals, and they abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. At present in Australia the required penance has been reduced to fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat may be eaten on the other Fridays of Lent.

Nonetheless, the faithful are encouraged to choose from the areas of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so that they may unite themselves with Christ on all the 40 days of Lent in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Meditation on living Lent well

Lent for some is a season of sombre self-denial to which they do not look forward. In this meditation we consider how Lent can be a time of real renewal and spiritual joy, looking at various ways we can live the three aspects of prayer, fasting and almsgiving so as to derive the maximum benefit from this fruitful time.