Lent, or as it is called in Latin, Quadragesima (which means the fortieth day), is perhaps my favorite Liturgical season of the year. In it, we see so many different practices, both in the Church building and also among the faithful. Lent is the forty day season of preparation for Easter. Forty is a significant number in the Bible. First of all, when God rid the world of sin in the flood, it rained for forty days (Gen. 7:12). Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:18), the Hebrews wandered the desert for forty years (Dt. 8:2), Jesus fasted and was tempted in the wilderness for forty days (Mt. 4:2), and there were forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension (Acts 1:3). There are other appearances of the number forty in Scripture, but these are the most significant.
When one looks at a calendar, one of the first things they will notice is that Lent actually covers a period of forty-six days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Six of those days are Sundays, and as Sunday is the Lord’s Day, it is always a feast day. The Catholic Dictionary defines Lent as “The season of prayer and penance before Easter. Its purpose is to better prepare the faithful for the feast of the Resurrection, and dispose them for a more fruitful reception of the graces that Christ merited by his passion and death.”
Let’s take a closer look at the Lenten practices of our beautiful Catholic faith:
Those who were alive before the promulgation of the Mass of Pope Paul VI (Novus Ordo) in 1970, or those who attend Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) parishes will be familiar with the “mini season” of Septuagesima. This is a word that means “the seventieth day.” This mini season begins more than sixty, but less than seventy days before Easter, and three Sunday’s before Ash Wednesday. The Sundays of Septuagesima are (in order), Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. This “mini season” is meant to be a preparation for the penitential season that is to come. The Liturgical color for these Sundays is violet, just like during Lent, as a reminder of the importance of penance. Beginning with Septuagesima Sunday, the Gloria and Alleluia are omitted. In the Novus Ordo, the Gloria and Alleluia are omitted beginning with Ash Wednesday. Paragraph 53 of the GIRM states, “The Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) . . . is sung or said on Sundays outside Advent and Lent, and also on Solemnities and Feasts, and at particular celebrations of a more solemn character.” Further, paragraph 62 of the GIRM states, “a) The Alleluia is sung in every time of year other than Lent. The verses are taken from the Lectionary or the Graduale.
b) During Lent, instead of the Alleluia, the verse before the Gospel as given in the Lectionary is sung. It is also possible to sing another Psalm or Tract, as found in the Graduale.”
Why are the Gloria and Alleluia omitted during Lent? The Gloria and Alleluia are hymns of praise and glory. Lent is a season of penance. One may have noticed, we also omit the Gloria during Advent. Again, because it is a season of penance. As Lent is a penitential season, it should carry a more somber tone. To accompany this somber tone, one should have noticed that there is a decreased use of the organ (or any other instruments) during Lent. Particularly during the processional and recessional hymns. Paragraph 313 of the GIRM states, “In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.”
Above I mentioned Ash Wednesday. The imposition of ashes is an ancient custom which goes back to the Old Testament. The wearing of ashes is a sign of repentance. In Neh. 9:1 we read, “And in the four and twentieth day of the month the children of Israel came together with fasting and with sackcloth, and earth upon them.” In Jon. 3:5-6 we read, “And the men of Nineveh believed in God: and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least. And the word came to the king of Nineveh; and he rose up out of his throne, and cast away his robe from him, and was clothed with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” In Dan. 9:3 we read, “And I set my face to the Lord my God, to pray and make supplication with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.” There are many other instances, however, one can see in the examples that I have provided, each instance of penance involves both ashes and fasting.
Why then, in the modern Church do we still put ashes on our heads? This practice goes back at least one thousand years. It used to be that while confession was private, penance was public. People would go to confession on Shrove Tuesday to have their sins forgiven, or shriven. To shrive is to forgive a sin - which is where the term Shrove Tuesday comes from. The following day, all those who had gone to confession the day before would go to Mass and have ashes put on their heads as a sign of penance. Because we are all in need of forgiveness, it eventually developed that all went to Mass and wore ashes on Ash Wednesday as public declaration that one is a sinner in need of repentance. The ashes also symbolize man’s mortality, as the priest says as he imposes the ashes, “Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
As mentioned above, in the Old Testament when one wore ashes and repented, it was generally accompanied by fasting. During the season of Lent, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there are only two required fast days - Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. A Liturgical fast in the Catholic Church consists of eating only 3 meals (with no snacks or drinks other than water in between) - One “normal” meal, and two smaller meals, which together do not equal the size of the normal meal.
Ash Wednesday, as well as all Fridays during Lent are also days of abstinence. That means no “flesh meat.” No mammals or poultry. Fish, reptiles, and amphibians are allowed (including some aquatic mammals such as beaver and a few others depending on the directives of the diocesan bishop). According to Can. 1251, the current guidelines for fasting are anyone who has reached the age of majority until they reach their sixtieth birthday and the current guidelines for abstinence are anyone who has reached their fourteenth birthday until death.
Those Catholics who attend the TLM will also be familiar with three additional fast days during Lent. These days are known as Ember days and occur on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the first Sunday of Lent. Ember days are days of penance that correspond to the change in the seasons (there are four ember tides throughout the year). An Ember day is a day of fasting and partial abstinence (except for Friday Ember days, because Fridays are full abstinence days all year long for Traditional Catholics). Partial abstinence means that one of your meals may have meat, though it does not have to.
When looking around your Church, you will notice that some things will look different during Lent. The first thing, you should have already noticed - the priest and deacon, if you have one, wear violet vestments. The priest’s chasuble and the deacon’s dalmatic are violet because, as I mentioned above, violet is a color which symbolizes penance. Something else you should have noticed by now is that there are no flowers on the altar during Lent. Paragraph 305 of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) states, “During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.”
What exactly is Laetare Sunday? It is the fourth Sunday of Lent, in which we take a short break from the penitential season and catch a glimmer of hope for the coming joyous celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Just like Gaudete Sunday in Advent, the priest wears rose colored vestments. As purple is the color of penance, and white is the color of joy, rose is a color which symbolizes joy within a penitential season. The term Laetare comes from the Introit from the TLM for the fourth Sunday of Lent, which says, “Laetare Jerusalem...” In English, it says, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem...”
The fifth Sunday of Lent brings about another “mini season.” This one is called Passiontide. The most noticeable thing about Passiontide will be the veiling of all crucifixes and statues in the Church. The reason we veil the corpus on the crucifix, as well as the statues comes from the traditional Gospel reading on Passion Sunday (not to be confused with Palm Sunday - where the reading of Christ’s Passion takes place). The Gospel reading for this day comes from Jn. 8:46-59. The final line says, “They took up stones therefore to cast at him. But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” Because Jesus hid Himself, we hide Him and the saints during Passiontide. The Roman Missal states, “In the Dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from this [Fifth] Sunday may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.” If they are veiled before the Fifth Sunday of Lent, it has been done too early and is out of line with Church discipline.
On Palm Sunday, your parish might hold a procession, either in the Church or in the surrounding community, in which the faithful wave palm branches in order to signify Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Historically (and in the TLM), Matthew’s Gospel account of Jesus’ Passion is read at Mass. With the three-year cycle of the Novus Ordo, it varies, Cycle A (this year) also happens to be Matthew’s account, Cycle B is Mark’s account, and Cycle C is Luke’s account. We are now in Holy Week.
During Holy Week, a special Chrism Mass is held at the Cathedral. This is traditionally done on Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday), but may be done earlier in the week in some dioceses. In the Chrism Mass all the sacred oils that are to be used during the year are blessed by the bishop. There are three kinds of sacred oils, all of which signify the work of the Holy Spirit and symbolize it in that oil “serves to sweeten, to strengthen, to render supple.”.
The three sacred oils are:
The Oil of Catechumens (Oleum Catechumenorum or Oleum Sanctum) used in Baptism along with water, in the consecration of churches, in the blessing of altars, in the ordination of priests, and, sometimes, in the crowning of Catholic kings and queens.
The Holy Chrism (Sanctum Chrisma) or “Oil of Gladness,” which is olive oil mixed with a small amount of balm or balsam. It is used in Confirmation, Baptism, in the consecration of a Bishop, the consecration of a various things such as churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
The Oil of the Sick (Oleum Infirmorum), which is used in the Anointing of the Sick - what is traditionally known as Extreme Unction.
The Wednesday of Holy Week is known as Spy Wednesday, for it is recognized as the day in which Judas went to the Sanhedrin and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The Thursday of Holy Week is referred to as Holy Thursday, but is properly known as Maundy Thursday. The term Maundy comes from the Gospel of John. After Jesus had washed the feet of the Apostles (after He instituted the priesthood), He says to them, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem.” Which translates in English, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Maundy Thursday ushers in yet another mini season - the Triduum (the three days). This mini season lasts from Holy Thursday Mass through evening prayers on Holy Saturday (BEFORE the Easter Vigil). This is a period of three days of prayer which commemorates the biblical three days that Christ lay in the tomb.
In the Church, one will notice some differences on Maundy Thursday. The first thing you will notice is that the holy water fonts will be empty. The holy water fonts are emptied during the Triduum. This is done in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, when the new Paschal candle is dipped into the baptistry. Water will then be taken from the baptistry to refill the holy water fonts.
The next thing one will notice on Maundy Thursday is the return of the Gloria. During the Gloria, bells will be rung. This is the last time one will hear bells until the Easter Vigil. I mentioned above that Jesus washed the feet of His apostles at the Last Supper as He instituted the priesthood. Likewise, parishes may choose (though it is not required) to do a foot washing. In the foot washing, twelve men from the parish have their feet washed by the priest in a symbolic reenactment of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles. These men are typically the deacon(s), seminarians, and lay liturgical ministers. Last year, Pope Francis opened the foot washing up to women as well. In his opinion, the washing of the feet of the apostles was less about the institution of the priesthood and more about Jesus humbling Himself and serving those around Him.
Above I mentioned that after the Gloria on Maundy Thursday, one will not hear bells again until the Easter Vigil. In place of the sanctus bells at the consecration, one will hear the sound of the crotalus. Crotalus is a Latin word that means rattle. It is a wooden instrument which makes a clacking or rattling sound.
Following Mass on Maundy Thursday, the Eucharist will be removed from the tabernacle and the sanctuary candle will be extinguished. The Eucharist will be taken to an altar of repose. This is symbolic of Christ’s three days in the tomb. When the Eucharist is placed in the altar of repose, a period of time known as night watch will commence. During night watch, the faithful remain at the altar of repose in prayer and adoration. This will last for at least one hour. Remember Jesus’ words from Mt. 26:40 when He came upon His apostles asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, “What? Could you not watch one hour with me?” Any hosts placed in the altar of repose on Maundy Thursday will be used on Good Friday. The Eucharist will not placed back into the tabernacle until following Holy Communion during the Easter Vigil.
Good Friday, is of course, the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Because it is the day that Christ was crucified, Mass is not celebrated. Instead, the Solemn Liturgy will include a Communion service. It will look very much like a Mass to the untrained observer. There is a procession (where the crotalus is used instead of a bell to begin Mass), there are Scripture readings, and there is reception of Holy Communion. The difference is, there is no consecration of the Eucharist. There are enough hosts consecrated on Maundy Thursday to get through the Good Friday Communion service.
Something else one will notice on Good Friday is the priest (and deacon) will process in and prostrate themselves (lay flat on their faces) before the altar. To prostrate oneself is to cast oneself down in front of anyone in adoration or contrition, petition or submission. Think of the magi when they visited the infant Jesus in Mt. 2:11, “and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
Another special thing which occurs during the Good Friday Solemn Liturgy is adoration of the cross. A little explanation is needed here. Adoration, or latria is worship which is meant for God alone. How is it then, that we adore the cross? Unfortunately, in our limited English language, “adore” is the best word we have for the Greek word proskynesis, which as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, is “reverence which has a relative character.”
There is no Mass during the day on Holy Saturday. We recall in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead” It is not until the evening of Holy Saturday that Mass is celebrated again. The crucifixes and statues that were veiled for Passiontide are unveiled. Mass begins with a wood fire in front of the Church where the new Paschal candle is blessed. The candidates and catechumens who have been preparing to enter the Church process in with Paschal candle.
The Paschal candle is dipped into the baptistry, and that water is used to refill the holy water fonts, as I mentioned above. Not only do we celebrate Jesus conquering sin and death through the resurrection, but we also welcome new Catholics into the Church. Catechumens (those who have never been baptized) will be baptized, confirmed and will receive Holy Communion for the first time. Candidates (those who have been baptized) will be confirmed and will receive Holy Communion for the first time. This is not only a joyous moment for those entering the Church, but for the entire Catholic community. It is our opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises that we made or our parents made for us at our baptism.
Everything we have done since Ash Wednesday (or Septuagesima in the TLM) has led up to the Easter Vigil - the highlight of the Liturgical year. The resurrection is why our faith even exists in the first place. Everyday when the Mass is offered, but especially on Sunday, it is a mini Easter. While Mass on Easter Sunday is beautiful, the Easter Vigil is GORGEOUS!
If you have never attended the Liturgy during the Triduum, I implore you to do it this year. You will not regret it. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, none of these are Holy Days of Obligation. There is no penalty of mortal sin for not attending on these days. However, if you are seeking a way to truly be edified this Lenten season, I highly recommend it. And don’t forget the second and third precepts of the Church:
To go to Confession at least once a year (traditionally done during Lent).
To receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during the Easter Season (known as the "Easter duty").