The twisted journeys that words take before they reach our modern ears are often signposts, pointing to the Divine gift that is human language. Etymology shows us a dusting of grace in even the most familiar of words. Observe the path the word “Lent” took to reach us here, at the dawn of the 21st century; look at the tidings of hope God tucked into its history.
“Lent” comes most recently from the Middle English word lencten, meaning “springtime”, a fitting and obvious association. But look further, and you see that the word has much older, deeper roots in an ancient Germanic word langitinaz, which means “long days”. The “long days” in question were the lengthening daylight we all look forward to with the arrival of the vernal equinox.
Lent is a penitential season, centered around an imitation of Christ. The Catechism states that “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540). During Lent, we are invited to draw closer to Jesus as He prepared for His ministry, leaving the pleasures and comfort of civilization behind and journeying into the wilderness for forty days.
There, in isolation in the rugged mountains, Christ neither ate nor drank. That we know. We also know that at the end of His journey, Christ soundly rejected the offerings of the Enemy. But what happened during the in between time?
He prayed, certainly. One can assume He wandered. He was, somewhat vaguely, ministered to by angels. But to our over scheduled, frenetic culture, all this seems disappointingly passive. Give us the big finale! The spectacle of the temptation! The victory of overcoming the Enemy! We are addicted to the rush and thrill of drama, of 24 hour news cycles, of a constantly refreshed social media feed. To a mind glutted on such stimuli, the quiet passiveness of the in between time is alien and uncomfortable. Holiness by increments, rather than by leaps, seems unbearable.
This addiction to the big and flashy often burrows deep into our observations of Lent. We begin with amazingly robust intentions. No meat for all 40 days. Nary a cuss word uttered. Daily Mass every single day and 20 Rosaries an hour and, and, and. Unintentionally, our Lenten sacrifices reveal a desire to leap over the wandering and isolation and in between time, instead arriving directly at the thrilling, dramatic ending, the Good vs. Evil showdown in the wastelands. The Resurrection. Easter.
In New England, the first gleamings of sunlight can be seen as early as 4 am in the summer. Dawn chorus, that cacophony of birdsong, follows swiftly behind, and the day has burst into full, glorious swing by 5:30. Contrast that with winter, when dusk can fall well before 4 pm, and there are months and months of cold and dark and the stark bleakness of a season that seems to stretch out forever.
How eagerly people wait for the winter solstice, knowing that on the other side is the immediate and trustworthy lengthening of days. A minute or two longer than the day before, but each day adds on to the one previous, and while it is a long wait between December 22nd and those warm, sunlit days of summer, we know it’s coming. As much as we long for it, we know it wouldn’t do to just leap from late December to mid-June, there’s too much to do, too much to settle and prepare for. Trees, bereft of leaves, would have no means to feed themselves. Animals, their migratory instincts short circuited, would be lost and adrift between two spaces. All of nature would be set akimbo, should we be able to lengthen days by sheer force of our will.
Thankfully it is not our will that sets the sun in its course, but God’s. And this is the grace of Lent. As much as we want to jump ahead to Easter Sunday, we know there’s too much to do, too much to settle and prepare for. Like animals and trees, skipping over the preparatory season of Lent runs the risk of finding us lost and unable to receive spiritual nourishment come Easter. But, just as the Creator gave us a physical lengthening of days to prepare for the business of summer, so to has He given us a spiritual lengthening. He has given us time to assess our hunger and wanderings, and prepares us to come home and be filled, incrementally.
We begin Lent with all the anticipation of a people deeply weary of darkness and cold, and during those 40 days, we follow in Christ’s footsteps, letting the days grow warmer and more full of His light. We follow in Christ’s footsteps, letting our souls grow warmer and more full of His light. If we skipped right to the end, we would wind up at Easter disoriented, ill-prepared, and having missed the beauty and grace that God has stored up for us in incremental amounts, each day building on the gains of the one before.