The purple vestments today indicate that the Christmas season is behind us, and Lent is but a brief two and a half weeks ahead of us. Ash Wednesday will be on the 21st of February. The Latin word “Septuagesima” tells us that we are roughly seventy days before Easter. So it is now the time to begin our preparations for Easter through the holy and prayerful observance of Lent.
In many of the religious orders, men and women start their Lenten observance today—for the rest it is reminder that we should now make appropriate plans, so that when Lent arrives we can begin its observance immediately. Perhaps some of us will even begin now, along with the monks and nuns.
If asked what Lent was all about, most people would likely respond that it is a time when we give up some of the things we enjoy. That, of course, is true. We restrict our meals to one a day, plus a light snack or two; we add a few more abstinence days to the calendar (Ash Wednesday, the Ember days, and the Easter Vigil); we might give up enjoyments like candy, alcohol, or tobacco; and we give up many of our entertainments, particularly frivolous ones like movies and television, and perhaps some unnecessary social activities.
It is important to recognize that when we give things up for Lent, we are doing so for more than reasons of health or economy. Most of us could stand to lose a few pounds or to stop smoking, and it is fine if we do, but the Lenten observance must go beyond that.
Lent must be, firstly, a season of penance. Modern society (including modern Catholics in society) rarely acknowledges the concepts of sin and personal responsibility —and even when it does, it is in purely human terms—it rarely acknowledges that sin is an offense against God, and that we have an obligation to do penance for offending Him.
And without the concepts of sin and personal responsibility, modern society is often oblivious to the concept of self discipline; a second thing that is developed through the Lenten observance. If a person cannot turn away from a piece of candy, a cocktail, or an in between meals treat, how can he be expected to turn away from real temptations when they present themselves? So, the Lenten observance should emphasize self discipline.
But the Lenten exercise should be more than self denial. It ought to emphasize growth in our spiritual lives. We ought to pray throughout the year, and frequent the Mass and the Sacraments, but Lent should be a time when we place greater emphasis on these things. If we are willing to cut back on entertainments and parties, as we should, we will find that there can be a great deal of pleasure in spiritual reading; learning more about our Faith, and coming to know God in a more personal and intimate way.
The Liturgy is extremely rich during the Lenten season. Beginning with Ash Wednesday there is a different Mass formulary for each and every day—we will read about the public life of our Lord in some detail and then go day by day through the events of His Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection from the dead. I would urge you to be here to hear those readings, or to read them at home for yourselves if your really cannot be here. Please try to attend the Stations of the Cross, which we will make each Friday evening once Lent begins. The Stations have the added value of allowing us to imagine that we are part of the scene; to imagine that we were there with Christ, walking the steps with Him on the way to Golgotha.
It is important to understand that the readings of the Gospels are much more than mere history—they are alive. The saintly Pope Pius XII reminds us that: “the liturgical year ... is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church. Here He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life....”
Pope Pius’ words ought to call to mind one of the fundamental truths of our Catholic Faith: The Mass is not just a recollection of something that happened in the past. It is not a mere social gathering where Jesus’ followers sit around, trying to call to mind what used to be. It is not the mere narration of what Jesus did at the Last Supper or on the Cross. All of these ideas are modern misconceptions—possibly even heresies.
In holy Mass we are truly and actually present at the Sacrifice which our Lord offered on the Cross. It is as though both time and distance have been stripped away, and we are there. And we are there at the Cross, precisely because Jesus Christ offers Himself continually to the Father, and will do so until the end of time. “The liturgical year [is] a splendid hymn of praise offered to the heavenly Father by the Christian family through Jesus, their perpetual Mediator.” We are there at the Cross, precisely because the Mass is the means given to us by Jesus Christ, so that His priests, doing what He did, acting as “other Christs” (“alter Christi”) make His eternal Sacrifice present in time and place. It is the means by which Christ offers us to the Father as members of His Mystical Body. The Sacrifice is eternal and on-going until the day of Judgment.
The philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, (you know his name and his triangle if you took intermediate algebra in high school) said it this way: “Our Lord Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of time.” Perhaps that sounds terrible, but it is true—an undeniable statement of His love for us—that “journey of immense mercy” to which Pope Pius referred. We are not talking about past history, but, rather, about present reality. A reality that ought to make our Lent considerably more fruitful if we do not lose sight of it.
Pope Pius XII, again, tells us: “In the sacred liturgy, the whole Christ is proposed to us in all the circumstances of His life, as the Word of the eternal Father, as born of the Virgin Mother of God, as He who teaches us truth, heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, who endures suffering and who dies; finally, as He who rose triumphantly from the dead and who, reigning in the glory of heaven, sends us the Holy [Ghost] and who abides in His Church forever; ‘Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same forever.’”
We might think of Jesus Christ as acting at the intersection of time and eternity—and the Church’s Liturgy as a sort of “box seat” from which we can see eternity as it passes through time. But it is more than a “box seat”; it is more, even, than a seat at the Last Supper in the Upper Room with Jesus and the Apostles—the Mass is, perhaps, more like a door into eternity, an entry into the life of God from the day of creation until the day of judgment, and then an entry on into eternal life.
Please keep all of this firmly in mind in the few short weeks ahead. Lent is an opportunity to come face to face with Jesus Christ. Don’t be caught off guard. Now is the time to plan and even to begin one’s Lent. Don’t wait until it is upon us, and unplanned for obligations make the Lenten observance impractical or impossible. Be sure that you have set aside the time to make a holy and fruitful Lent. Fasting and abstinence and self denial, to be sure—but, more importantly, prayer, spiritual reading, and being with our Lord in Holy Mass, the door to eternity.
 Rembrandt, “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” http://www.breviary.net/images/labourersinvineyard.jpg
 Ibid., para 161, “should be considered as” for “is” in the original.
 Ibid., para. 163. “Paraclete” for “Ghost” in the original.