It happens every year. Catholics worldwide line up inside churches, chapels, oratories, basilicas, and cathedrals to receive the smudge of ashes traced upon their foreheads in the shape of the cross. Outwardly this sign of faith demonstrates the solidarity of the world’s Catholics. Inwardly, it should remind us of our fallen, passing nature. When we step up to the minister for our ashes the minister says, “Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Then we walk from the church, bearing the mark of our humanity.
This ‘advent’ of Lent marks the beginning of several weeks of punitive devotions to show ourselves — and God — how disciplined we can be for the sake of his Son’s own passion. We give up certain (usually edible) favorites between Ash Wednesday and Easter. While this is not exactly staring down Satan in a rocky desert, each small sacrifice has the potential to unite ourselves more closely with Christ, who endured much temptation and suffering in the wilderness before being baptized into his ministry.
During Lent I like to meditate on Christ in the Desert, the 19th-Century masterpiece of Russian artist Ivan Kramskoy. In the painting, Jesus sits on a rock in the wilderness with his hands folded, face gaunt, hair matted, tunic tattered, eyes hollowed with dread. There is no one with him but the devil, commanding him to turn the stones into bread. Jesus resists temptation, and the devil flees for a while.
Jesus is human; he knows how we struggle. Resisting temptation has a higher purpose than giving up cigarettes, chocolate, yelling at the kids, or booze. The purpose of this sacrificial season is manifold:
- To prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal promises;
- To reaffirm our belief in the Trinity;
- Deny Satan;
- Recommit ourselves to Christ.
Jesus knows what we go through, because he did it too. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tempted in every way, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As such, we embark on our journey wilderness with the Master as our guide. We must abandon ourselves to the will of the Father as he did.
This all leads to metanoia, a conversion of heart intended to make us like Jesus. To help, the Church offers time-tested traditions, penitential practices used by the pious saints throughout the ages to obtain and maintain a closer, more personal relationship with the Lord. Prayer, fasting, merciful works (corporal and spiritual), praying with the Bible, frequent confession, the Eucharist — all prepare the faithful to receive the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ at Easter. Taken by themselves, these practices might not seem effective, if even we understand them. As a whole, however, they have the power to change minds and convert hearts, to heal illnesses, and to free us from the burdened by sin.
The practice of Lent as we know it can be traced back to the Old Testament. New Testament writers drew upon the earlier Scripture and Tradition to develop a penitential characteristic aimed at helping Christian cleanse their hearts and unite their sufferings with those of Christ on the cross. Over the past two millennia the season has remained rooted in biblical traditions and popular devotions and its development has crystallized. Yet its origins remain unclear, despite how firmly ensconced it is in Christendom.
The word “Lent” is derived from the words lencten or lente, Anglo-Saxon for “spring,” and lenctentid, or “springtide.” The Lenten structure comprises a penitential season that begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Thursday with Vespers followed by the Mass of the Last Supper. The anthropological development has been refined throughout the ages to what we now know as the forty-day period of abstinence, fasting, merciful works, and prayer. Possible models for the origin and development of Lent are Old Testament figures Moses and Elijah, and the spiritual journey of Christ in the desert. God brought up the Israelites from slavery by the Egyptians. Once freed, they underwent a forty-year purification by wandering in the desert where they had been cleansed, in part by the serpent lifted on high (a type of Christ on the cross) and across the Jordan (waters of baptism) into the Promised Land, the New Heaven and Earth promised by God.
Regardless of origin, Lent’s purpose should remain clear: to enter into a state of metabasis, a passing from a state of sin to freedom by grace. Lent is not a linear journey, but a vertical uplifting in imitation of Jesus’s sojourn in the desert following the break in his anonymity. He is driven by the Spirit to fast, pray, and resist temptation.
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him (Mark 1:13-14).
Christ in the desert sets the example. He emerges from his fast hungry to carry out his Father’s plan, “obediently accepting even death — death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8) Through sacrifice, obedience, and self-denial, Jesus shows us how to obtain the promise of the Father. The horror and shame of the cross leads to the glory of the Resurrection. Penitential practices observed during Lent lead us closer to the Father’s heart and the obtainment of our true vocation. Who better to follow than the Word of God?
The holy season of Lent is a time of spiritual purification in anticipation of Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate display of God’s sovereignty over death.