THE HOLY SEASON OF LENT
THE HOLY SEASON OF LENT
being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert, for the space of forty days; and was tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days...”
(St. Luke, iv. 1,2)
The History of Lent.
The Forty Days’ Fast, which we call Lent, is the Church's preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our Blessed Lord himself sanctioned it by his fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though he would not impose it on the world by an express commandment, (which, then, could not have been open to the power of dispensation,) yet he showed plainly enough by his own example, that Fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the Old Law, was to be also practised by the Children of the New.
The Disciples of St. John the Baptist came, one day, to Jesus, and said to him: Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy Disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast (St. Matth, ix. 14, 15).
Hence, we find it mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, how the Disciples of our Lord, after the Foundation of the Church, applied themselves to Fasting. In their Epistles, also, they recommended it to the Faithful. Nor could it be otherwise. Though the divine mysteries, whereby our Saviour wrought our redemption, have been consummated,—yet are we still Sinners: and where there is sin, there must be expiation.
The Apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the Solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal Fast; and it was only natural, that they should have made this period of Penance to consist of Forty Days, seeing that our Divine Master had consecrated that number by his own Fast. St. Jerome, St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Isidore of Seville, and others of the Holy Fathers, assure us that Lent was instituted by the Apostles, although, at the commencement, there was not any uniform way of observing it.
We have already seen, in our Septuagesima, that the Orientals begin their Lent much earlier than the Latins, owing to their custom of never fasting on Saturdays, (or, in some places, even on Thursdays). They are, consequently, obliged, in order to make up the forty days, to begin the Lenten Fast on the Monday preceding our Sexagesima Sunday. These are the kind of exceptions, which prove the rule. We have also shown, how the Latin Church,—which, even so late as the 6th Century, kept only thirty-six fasting days during the six weeks of Lent, (for the Church has never allowed Sundays to be kept as days of fast,)—thought proper to add, later on, the last four days of Quinquagesima, in order that her Lent might contain exactly Forty Days of Fast.
Lent, then, is a time consecrated, in an especial manner, to penance; and this penance is mainly practised by Fasting. Fasting is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself, as an expiation for sin, and which, during Lent, is practised in obedience to the general law of the Church. According to the actual discipline of the Western Church, the Fast of Lent is not more rigorous than that prescribed for the Vigils of certain Feasts, and for the Ember Days; but it is kept up for Forty successive Days, with the single interruption of the intervening Sundays.
We deem it unnecessary to show the importance and advantages of Fasting. The Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, are filled with the praises of this holy practice. The traditions of every nation of the world testify the universal veneration, in which it has ever been held; for there is not a people, nor a religion, how much soever it may have lost the purity of primitive traditions, which is not impressed with this conviction,—that man may appease his God by subjecting his body to penance.
St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, make the remark, that the commandment put upon our First Parents, in the earthly paradise, was one of Abstinence; and that it was by their not exercising this virtue, that they brought every kind of evil upon themselves and us their children. The life of privation, which the king of creation had thenceforward to lead on the earth,—(for the earth was to yield him nothing, of its own natural growth, save thorns and thistles,)—was the clearest possible exemplification of the law of penance, imposed by the anger of God on rebellious man.
During the two thousand and more years, which preceded the Deluge, men had no other food than the fruits of the earth, and these were only got by the toil of hard labour. But when God, as we have already observed, mercifully shortened man's life, (that so he might have less time and power for sin,)—he permitted him to eat the flesh of animals, as an additional nourishment in that state of deteriorated strength. It was then, also, that Noah, guided by a divine inspiration, extracted the juice of the grape, which thus formed a second stay for human debility.
Fasting, then, is the abstaining from such nourishments as these, which were permitted for the support of bodily strength. And firstly, it consisted in abstinence from flesh-meat, because it is a food that was given to man by God, out of condescension to his weakness, and not as one absolutely essential for the maintenance of life. Its privation, greater or less according to the regulations of the Church, is essential to the very notion of Fasting. Thus, whilst in many countries, the use of eggs, milk-meats, and even of dripping and lard, is tolerated,—the abstaining from flesh-meat is everywhere maintained, as being essential to Fasting. For many centuries, eggs and milk-meats were not allowed, because they come under the class of animal food: even to this day, they are forbidden in the Eastern Churches, and are only allowed in the Latin Church by virtue of an annual dispensation. The precept of abstaining from flesh-meat is so essential to Lent, that even on Sundays, when the Fasting is interrupted, Abstinence is an obligation, binding even on those who are dispensed from the fasts of the week, unless there be a special dispensation granted for eating meat on the Sundays.
In the early ages of Christianity, Fasting included also the abstaining from Wine, as we learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, Theophilus of Alexandria, and others. In the West, this custom soon fell into disuse. The Eastern Christians kept it up much longer, but even with them it has ceased to be considered as obligatory.
Lastly, Fasting includes the depriving ourselves of some portion of our ordinary food, inasmuch as it only allows the taking of one meal during the day. Though the modifications introduced from age to age in the discipline of Lent, are very numerous, yet the points we have here mentioned belong to the very essence of Fasting, as is evident from the universal practice of the Church.
[Pope Benedict the Fourteenth], whose spirit of moderation has never been called in question, had no sooner ascended the Papal Throne, than he addressed an Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic world, expressing his heartfelt grief at seeing the great relaxation that was introduced among the Faithful by indiscreet and unnecessary dispensations. The Letter is dated May 30th, 1741. We extract from it the following passage: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God's glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.”
More than [two] hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation, he inveighed against, has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet, who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form! The long list of general Dispensations granted, each year, by the Bishops to their flocks, would lead us to suppose that the immense majority of the Faithful would be scrupulously exact in the fulfilment of the Fasting and Abstinence still remaining; but is such the case? And, must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders? The sad predictions of Pope Benedict the Fourteenth are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking his justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges,—civil discord, or conquest. In our own country, there is an inconsistency, which must strike every thinking mind:—the observance of the Lord's Day, on the one side; the national inobservance of days of penance and fasting, on the other. The first is admirable, and, (if we except puritanical extravagances,) bespeaks a deep-rooted sense of religion; but the second is one of the worst presages for the future. No:—the word of God is too plain: unless we do penance, we shall perish (St. Luke, xiii. 3). But, if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation,—who knows, but that the arm of God, which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing, and not chastisement?
Let us resume our History, and seek our edification in studying the fervour wherewith the Christians of former times used to observe Lent. We will first offer to our readers a few instances of the manner in which Dispensations were given.
In the 13th century, the Archbishop of Braga applied to the reigning Pontiff, Innocent the Third, asking him, what compensation he ought to require of his people, who, in consequence of a dearth of the ordinary articles of food, had been necessitated to eat meat during the Lent? He, at the same time, consulted the Pontiff as to how he was to act in the case of the sick, who asked for a dispensation from abstinence. The answer given by Innocent, which is inserted in the Canon Law, is, as we might expect, full of considerateness and charity; but we learn from this fact, that such was then the respect for the law of Lent, that it was considered necessary to apply to the Sovereign Pontiff, when dispensations, were sought for. We find many such instances in the history of the Church.
Wenceslaus, King of Bohemia, being seized with a malady, which rendered it dangerous to his health to take Lenten diet,—he applied, in the year 1297, to Pope Boniface the Eighth, for leave to eat meat. The Pontiff commissioned two Cistercian Abbots to enquire into the real state of the Prince's health: they were to grant the dispensation sought for, if they found it necessary; but, on the following conditions: that the King had not bound himself by a vow, for life, to fast during Lent; that the Fridays, Saturdays, and the Vigil of St. Matthias, were to be excluded from the dispensation; and, lastly, that the King was not to take his meal in the presence of others, and was to observe moderation in what he took.
In the 14th century, we meet with two Briefs of dispensation, granted by Clement the Sixth, in 1351, to John, King of France, and to his Queen consort. In the first, the Pope,—taking into consideration, that during the wars in which the King is engaged he frequently finds himself in places where fish can with difficulty be procured,—grants to the Confessor of the King the power of allowing, both to his majesty and his suite, the use of meat on days of abstinence, excepting, however, the whole of Lent, all Fridays of the year, and certain Vigils; provided, moreover, that neither he, nor those who accompany him, are under a vow of perpetual abstinence. In the second Brief, the same Pope, replying to the petition made him by the King for a dispensation from fasting, again commissions his Majesty's present and future Confessors, to dispense both the King and his Queen, after having consulted with their Physicians.
A few years later, that is, in 1376, Pope Gregory the Eleventh sent a Brief in favour of Charles 5th, King of France, and of Jane, his Queen. In this Brief, he delegates to their Confessor the power of allowing them the use of eggs and milk-meats, during Lent, should their Physicians think they stand in need of such dispensation; but he tells both Physicians and Confessor, that he puts it upon their consciences, and that they will have to answer before God for their decision. The same permission is granted also to their servants and cooks, but only as far as it is needed for their tasting the food to be served to their Majesties.
The 15th century, also, furnishes us with instances of this applying to the Holy See for Lenten dispensations. We will cite the Brief addressed by Xystus the Fourth, in 1483, to James 3rd, King of Scotland; in which he grants him permission to eat meat on days of abstinence, provided his Confessor consider the dispensation needed. In the following century, we have Julius the Second granting a like dispensation to John, King of Denmark, and to his Queen Christina; and, a few years later, Clement the Seventh giving one to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, and, again, to Henry 2nd of Navarre, and to his Queen Margarite.
Thus were Princes themselves treated… centuries ago, when they sought for a dispensation from the sacred law of Lent. What are we to think of the present indifference wherewith it is kept? What comparison can be made between the Christians of former times, who, deeply impressed with the fear of God's judgments and with the spirit of penance, cheerfully went through these forty days of mortification,—and those of our own days, when love of pleasure and self-indulgence is for ever lessening man's horror for sin? Where there is little or no fear of having to penance ourselves for sin, there is so much the less restraint to keep us from committing it.
Where now that simple and innocent joy at Easter, which our forefathers used to show, when, after their severe fast of Lent, they partook of substantial and savoury food? The peace, which long and sharp mortification ever brings to the conscience, gave them the capability, not to say the right, of being lighthearted as they returned to the comforts of life, which they had denied themselves, in order to spend forty days in penance, recollection, and retirement from the world. This leads us to mention some further details, which will assist the Catholic reader to understand what Lent was in the Ages of Faith.
It was a season, during which, not only all amusements and theatrical entertainments were forbidden by the civil authority, but when even the Law Courts were closed; and this, in order to secure that peace and calm of heart, which is so indispensable for the soul's self-examination, and reconciliation with her offended Maker. As early as the year 380, Gratian and Theodosius enacted, that Judges should suspend all law-suits and proceedings, during the forty days preceding Easter. The Theodosian Code contains several regulations of this nature; and we find Councils, held in the 9th century, urging the Kings of that period to enforce the one we have mentioned, seeing that it had been sanctioned by the Canons, and approved of by the Fathers of the Church. These admirable Christian traditions have long since fallen into disuse in the countries of Europe; but they are still kept up among the Turks, who, during the forty days of their Ramadan, forbid all law proceedings. What a humiliation for us Christians!
Hunting, too, was for many ages considered as forbidden during Lent;—the spirit of the holy season was too sacred to admit such exciting and noisy sport. The Pope, Saint Nicholas the First, in the 9th century, forbade it the Bulgarians, who had been recently converted to the Christian Faith. Even so late as the 13th Century, we find St. Raymond of Pegnafort teaching, that they who, during Lent, take part in the chase, if it be accompanied by certain circumstances, which he specifies, cannot be excused from sin. This prohibition has long since been a dead letter; but St. Charles Borromeo, in one of his Synods, re-established it in his province of Milan.
But, we cannot be surprised that Hunting should be forbidden during Lent, when we remember, that, in those Christian times, War itself, which is sometimes so necessary for the welfare of a nation, was suspended during this holy Season. In the 4th century, we have the Emperor Constantine the Great enacting, that no military exercises should be allowed on Sundays and Fridays, out of respect to our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and rose again on these two days, as also in order not to disturb the peace and repose needed for the due celebration of such sublime mysteries. The discipline of the Latin Church, in the 9th century, enforced everywhere the suspension of war, during the whole of Lent, except in cases of necessity. The instructions of Pope St. Nicholas the First to the Bulgarians recommend the same observance; and we learn, from a letter of St. Gregory the Seventh to Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, that it was kept up in the 11th century. We have an instance of its being practised in our own country, in the 12th century, when, as William of Malmsbury relates, the Empress Matilda, Countess of Anjou, and daughter of King Henry, was contesting the right of succession to the throne against Stephen, Count of Boulogne. The two armies were in sight of each other;—but an armistice was demanded and observed, for it was the Lent of 1143.
Our readers have heard, no doubt, of the admirable institution, called God's Truce, whereby the Church, in the 11th century, succeeded in preventing much bloodshed. It was a law that forbade the carrying arms from Wednesday evening till Monday morning, throughout the year. It was sanctioned by the authority of Popes and Councils, and enforced by all Christian Princes. It was a continuing, during four days of each week of the year, the Lenten discipline of the suspension of war. Our saintly King, Edward the Confessor, gave a still greater extension to it, by passing a law, (which was confirmed by his successor, William the Conqueror,) that God's Truce should be observed, without cessation, from the beginning of Advent to the Octave of Easter, from the Ascension to the Whitsuntide Octave; on all the ember days; on the Vigils of all Feasts; and, lastly, every week, from None on Wednesday till Monday morning, which had been already prescribed.
In the Council of Clermont, held in 1095, Pope Urban the Second, after drawing up the regulations for the Crusade, used his authority in extending the God's Truce, as it was then observed during Lent. His decree, which was renewed in the Council held the following year at Rouen, was to this effect: that all war proceedings should be suspended from Ash Wednesday to the Monday after the Octave of Pentecost, and on all Vigils and Feasts of the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles, over and above what was already regulated for each week, that is, from Wednesday evening to Monday morning.
Thus did the world testify its respect for the holy observances of Lent, and borrow some of its wisest institutions from the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. The influence of this Forty-Days' penance was great, too, on each individual. It renewed man's energies, gave him fresh vigour in battling with his animal instincts, and, by the restraint it put upon sensuality, ennobled the soul. Yes, there was restraint every where; and the present discipline of the Church, which forbids the Solemnisation of Marriage, during Lent, reminds Christians of that holy continency, which, for many ages, was observed during the whole Forty Days as a precept, and of which the most sacred of the liturgical books—the Missal—still retains the recommendation.
It is with reluctance that we close our history of Lent, and leave untouched so many other interesting details. For instance, what treasures we could have laid open to our readers from the Lenten usages of the Eastern Churches, which have retained so much of the primitive discipline! We cannot, however, resist devoting our last page to the following particulars.
The Mystery of Lent.
We may be sure, that a season, so sacred as this of Lent, is rich in mysteries. The Church has made it a time of recollection and penance, in preparation for the greatest of all her Feasts; she would, therefore, bring into it everything that could excite the faith of her children, and encourage them to go through the arduous work of atonement for their sins. During Septuagesima, we had the number Seventy, which reminded us of those seventy years’ captivity in Babylon, after which, God's chosen people, being purified from idolatry, was to return to Jerusalem and celebrate the Pasch. It is the number Forty that the Church now brings before us:—a number, as St. Jerome observes, which denotes punishment and affliction.
Let us remember the forty days and forty nights of the Deluge (Gen, vii. 12), sent by God in his anger, when he repented that he had made man, and destroyed the whole human race, with the exception of one family. Let us consider how the Hebrew people, in punishment for their ingratitude, wandered forty years in the desert, before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land (Num, xiv. 33). Let us listen to our God commanding the Prophet Ezechiel to lie forty days on his right side, as a figure of the siege, which was to bring destruction on Jerusalem (Ezech, iv. 6).
There are two, in the Old Testament, who represent, in their own persons, the two manifestations of God: Moses, who typifies the Law; and Elias, who is the figure of the Prophets. Both of these are permitted to approach God,—the first on Sinai (Exod, xxiv. 18), the second on Horeb (III Kings, xix. 8),—but both of them have to prepare for the great favour by an expiatory fast of forty days.
With these mysterious facts before us, we can understand why it was, that the Son of God, having become Man for our salvation, and wishing to subject himself to the pain of fasting, chose the number of Forty Days. The institution of Lent is thus brought before us with everything that can impress the mind with its solemn character, and with its power of appeasing God and purifying our souls. Let us, therefore, look beyond the little world which surrounds us, and see how the whole Christian universe is, at this very time, offering this Forty Days' penance as a sacrifice of propitiation to the offended Majesty of God; and let us hope, that, as in the case of the Ninivites, he will mercifully accept this year's offering of our atonement, and pardon us our sins.
The number of our days of Lent is, then, a holy mystery: let us, now, learn from the Liturgy, in what light the Church views her Children during these Forty Days. She considers them as an immense army, fighting, day and night, against their spiritual enemies. We remember how, on Ash Wednesday, she calls Lent a Christian warfare. Yes,—in order that we may have that newness of life, which will make us worthy to sing once more our Alleluia,—we must conquer our three enemies, the devil, the flesh, and the world. We are fellow combatants with our Jesus, for He, too, submits to the triple temptation, suggested to him by Satan in person. Therefore, we must have on our armour, and watch unceasingly. And whereas it is of the utmost importance that our hearts be spirited and brave,—the Church gives us a war-song of heaven's own making, which can fire even cowards with hope of victory and confidence in God's help: it is the Ninetieth Psalm. She inserts the whole of it in the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent, and, every day, introduces several of its verses in the Ferial Office.
She there tells us to rely on the protection, wherewith our Heavenly Father covers us, as with a shield; to hope under the shelter of his wings; to have confidence in him, for that he will deliver us from the snare of the hunter, who had robbed us of the holy liberty of the children of God; to rely upon the succour of the Holy Angels, who are our Brothers, to whom our Lord hath given charge that they keep us in all our ways, and who, when our Jesus permitted Satan to tempt him, were the adoring witnesses of his combat, and approached him, after his victory, proffering to him their service and homage. Let us get well into us these sentiments wherewith the Church would have us be inspired; and, during our six weeks' campaign, let us often repeat this admirable Canticle, which so fully describes what the Soldiers of Christ should be and feel in this season of the great spiritual warfare.
But the Church is not satisfied with thus animating us to the contest with our enemies;—she would also have our minds engrossed with thoughts of deepest import; and for this end, she puts before us three great subjects, which she will gradually unfold to us between this and the great Easter Solemnity. Let us be all attention to these soul-stirring and instructive lessons.
And firstly, there is the conspiracy of the Jews against our Redeemer. It will be brought before us in its whole history, from its first formation to its final consummation on the great Friday, when we shall behold the Son of God hanging on the Wood of the Cross. The infamous workings of the synagogue will be brought before us so regularly, that we shall be able to follow the plot in all its details. We shall be inflamed with love for the august Victim, whose meekness, wisdom, and dignity, bespeak a God. The divine drama, which began in the cave of Bethlehem, is to close on Calvary; we may assist at it, by meditating on the passages of the Gospel read to us, by the Church, during these days of Lent.
The second of the subjects offered to us, for our instruction, requires that we should remember how the Feast of Easter is to be the day of new birth for our Catechumens; and how, in the early ages of the Church, Lent was the immediate and solemn preparation given to the candidates for Baptism. The holy Liturgy of the present season retains much of the instruction she used to give to the Catechumens; and as we listen to her magnificent Lessons from both the Old and the New Testament, whereby she completed their initiation, we ought to think with gratitude on how we were not required to wait years before being made Children of God, but were mercifully admitted to Baptism, even in our Infancy. We shall be led to pray for those new Catechumens, who this very year, in far distant countries, are receiving instructions from their zealous Missioners, and are looking forward, as did the postulants of the primitive Church, to that grand Feast of our Saviour's victory over Death, when they are to be cleansed in the Waters of Baptism and receive from the contact a new being,—regeneration.
Thirdly, we must remember how, formerly, the public Penitents, who had been separated, on Ash Wednesday, from the assembly of the Faithful, were the object of the Church's maternal solicitude during the whole Forty Days of Lent, and were to be admitted to Reconciliation on Maundy Thursday, if their repentance were such as to merit this public forgiveness. We shall have the admirable course of instructions, which were originally designed for these Penitents, and which the Liturgy, faithful as she ever is to such traditions, still retains for our sakes. As we read these sublime passages of the Scripture, we shall naturally think upon our own sins, and on what easy terms they were pardoned us; whereas, had we lived in other times, we should have probably been put through the ordeal of a public and severe penance. This will excite us to fervour, for we shall remember, that, whatever changes the indulgence of the Church may lead her to make in her discipline, the justice of our God is ever the same. We shall find in all this an additional motive for offering to his Divine Majesty the sacrifice of a contrite heart, and we shall go through our penances with that cheerful eagerness, which the conviction of our deserving much severer ones always brings with it.
In order to keep up the character of mournfulness and austerity which is so well-suited to Lent, the Church, for many centuries, admitted very few Feasts into this portion of her year, inasmuch as there is always joy, where there is even a spiritual Feast. In the 4th century, we have the Council of Laodicea forbidding, in its fifty-first canon, the keeping a Feast or commemoration of any Saint, during Lent, excepting on the Saturdays or Sundays. The Greek Church rigidly maintained this point of Lenten Discipline; nor was it till many centuries after the Council of Laodicea that she made an exception for the 25th of March, on which day she now keeps the Feast of our Lady's Annunciation.
The Church of Rome maintained this same discipline, at least in principle; but she admitted the Feast of the Annunciation at a very early period, and, somewhat later, the Feast of the Apostle St. Matthias, on the 24th of February. During the last few centuries, she has admitted several other Feasts into that portion of her general Calendar which coincides with Lent; still, she observes a certain restriction, out of respect for the ancient practice.
The reason of the Church of Rome being less severe on this point of excluding the Saint's Feasts during Lent, is, that the Christians of the West have never looked upon the celebration of a Feast as incompatible with fasting; the Greeks, on the contrary, believe that the two are irreconcilable, and, as a consequence of this principle, never observe Saturday as a fasting-day, because they always keep it as a Solemnity, though they make Holy Saturday an exception, and fast upon it. For the same reason, they do not fast upon the Annunciation.
After thus briefly alluding to these details, we must close our present Chapter by a few words on the holy rites, which are now observed, during Lent, in our Western Churches. We have explained several of these in our “Septuagesima.” The suspension of the Alleluia; the purple vestments; the laying aside the deacon's Dalmatic, and the subdeacon's Tunic; the omission of the two joyful canticles,—the Gloria in excelsis, and the Te Deum; the substitution of the mournful Tract for the Alleluia-verse in the Mass the Benedicamus Domino instead of the Ite Missa est; the additional Prayer said over the people after the Post-communion Collects on Ferial Days; the saying the Vesper Office before mid-day, excepting on the Sundays;—all these are familiar to our readers. We have only now to mention, in addition, the genuflections prescribed for the conclusion of all the Hours of the Divine Office on Ferias, and the rubric which requires the Choir to kneel, on those same Days, during the Canon of the Mass.
There were other ceremonies peculiar to the season of Lent, which were observed in the Churches of the West, but which have now, for many centuries, fallen into general disuse; we say general, because they are still partially kept up in some places. Of these rites, the most imposing was that of putting up a large veil between the Choir and the Altar, so that neither clergy nor people could look upon the Holy Mysteries celebrated within the Sanctuary. This veil—which was called the Curtain, and, generally speaking, was of a purple colour—was a symbol of the penance to which the sinner ought to subject himself, in order to merit the sight of that Divine Majesty, before whose face he had committed so many outrages. It signified, moreover, the humiliations endured by our Redeemer, who was a stumbling-block to the proud Synagogue. But, as a veil that is suddenly drawn aside, these humiliations were to give way, and be changed into the glories of the Resurrection. Among other places where this rite [was] still observed, we may mention the Metropolitan Church of Paris, Notre Dame.
It was the custom also, in many Churches, to veil the Crucifix and the Statues of the Saints as soon as Lent began: in order to excite the Faithful to a livelier sense of penance, they were deprived of the consolation which the sight of these holy Images always brings to the soul. But this custom, which is still retained in some places, was less general than the more expressive one used in the Roman Church…—we mean the veiling the Crucifix and Statues only in Passion Time [Passion-tide and Holy Week].
We learn from the Ceremonials of the Middle Ages, that, during Lent, and particularly on the Wednesdays and Fridays, processions used frequently to be made from one Church to another. In Monasteries, these Processions were made in the Cloister, and barefooted. This custom was suggested by the practice of Rome, where there is a Station for every day of Lent, and which, for many centuries, began by a procession to the Stational Church.
Lastly,—the Church has always been in the habit of adding to her prayers during the Season of Lent. Her present discipline is, that, on Ferias, in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, (which are not exempted by a custom to the contrary,) the following additions are to be made to the Canonical Hours: on Mondays, the Office of the Dead; on Wednesdays, the Gradual Psalms; and on Fridays, the Penitential Psalms. In some Churches, during the Middle-Ages, the whole Psaltery was added each week of Lent to the usual Office.
Practice during Lent.
After having spent the three weeks of Septuagesima in meditating upon our spiritual infirmities, and upon the wounds caused in us by sin,—we should be ready to enter upon the penitential season, which the Church has now begun. We have now a clearer knowledge of the justice and holiness of God, and of the dangers that await an impenitent soul; and, that our repentance might be earnest and lasting, we have bade farewell to the vain joys and baubles of the world. Our pride has been humbled by the prophecy, that these bodies would soon be like the ashes that wrote the memento of death upon our foreheads.
During these Forty Days of penance, which seem so long to our poor nature, we shall not be deprived of the company of our Jesus. He seemed to have withdrawn from us during those weeks of Septuagesima, when everything spoke to us of his maledictions upon sinful man;—but this absence has done us good. It has taught us how to tremble at the voice of God's anger. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps, cx. 10); we have found it to be so;—the spirit of penance is now active within us, because we have feared.
And now, let us look at the divine object that is before us. It is our Emmanuel; the same Jesus, but not under the form of the sweet Babe whom we adored in his Crib. He is grown to the fulness of the age of man, and wears the semblance of a Sinner, trembling and humbling himself before the Sovereign Majesty of his Father, whom we have offended, and to whom he now offers himself as the Victim of propitiation. He loves us with a Brother's love; and seeing that the season for our doing penance has begun, he comes to cheer us on by his presence and his own example. We are going to spend Forty Days in fasting and abstinence:—Jesus, who is innocence itself, goes through the same penance. We have separated ourselves, for a time, from the pleasures and vanities of the world:—Jesus withdraws from the company and sight of men. We intend to assist at the Divine Services more assiduously, and pray more fervently, than at other times:—Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in praying, like the humblest suppliant; and all this for us. We are going to think over our past sins, and bewail them in bitter grief:—Jesus suffers for them and weeps over them in the silence of the desert, as though He himself had committed them.
No sooner had he received Baptism from the hands of St. John, than the Holy Ghost led him to the Desert. The time had come for his showing himself to the world; he would begin by teaching us a lesson of immense importance. He leaves the saintly Precursor and the admiring multitude, that had seen the divine Spirit descend upon him, and heard the Father's voice proclaiming him to be his Beloved Son; he leaves them, and goes into the Desert. Not far from the Jordan, there rises a rugged mountain, which has received, in after ages, the name of Quarantana. It commands a view of the fertile plain of Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea. It is within a cave of this wild rock that the Son of God now enters, his only companions being the dumb animals who have chosen this same for their own shelter. He has no food wherewith to satisfy the pangs of hunger; the barren rock can yield him no drink; his only bed must be of stone. Here he is to spend Forty Days; after which, he will permit the Angels to visit him and bring him food.
Thus does our Saviour go before us on the holy path of Lent. He has borne all its fatigues and hardships, that so we, when called upon to tread the narrow way of our Lenten penance, might have His example wherewith to silence the excuses, and sophisms, and repugnances, of self-love and pride. The lesson is here too plainly given not to be understood; the law of doing penance for sin is here too clearly shown, and we cannot plead ignorance;—let us honestly accept the teaching and practise it. Jesus leaves the Desert where he had spent the Forty Days, and begins his preaching with these words, which he addresses to all men: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (St. Matth, iv. 17). Let us not harden our hearts to this invitation, lest there be fulfilled in us the terrible threat contained in those other words of our Redeemer: Unless ye shall do penance, ye shall all perish (St. Luke, xiii. 3).
Now, Penance consists in contrition of the soul, and in mortification of the body; these two parts are essential to it. The soul has willed the sin; the body has frequently co-operated in its commission. Moreover, man is composed of both Soul and Body; both, then, should pay homage to their Creator. The Body is to share with the Soul, either the delights of heaven, or the torments of hell; there cannot, therefore, be any thorough Christian life, or any earnest penance, where the Body does not take part, in both, with the Soul.
But it is the Soul which gives reality to Penance. The Gospel teaches this by the examples it holds out to us of the Prodigal Son, of Magdalene, of Zacheus, and of St. Peter. The Soul, then, must be resolved to give up every sin; she must heartily grieve over those she has committed; she must hate sin; she must shun the occasions of sin. The Sacred Scriptures have a word for this inward disposition, which has been adopted by the Christian world, and admirably expresses the state of the Soul that has turned away from her sins: this word is, Conversion. The Christian should, therefore, during Lent, study to excite himself to this repentance of heart, and look upon it as the essential foundation of all his Lenten exercises. Nevertheless, he must remember that this spiritual penance would be a mere delusion, were he not to practise mortification of the Body. Let him study the example given him by his Saviour, who grieves, indeed, and weeps over our sins; but he also expiates them by his bodily sufferings. Hence it is, that the Church,—the infallible interpreter of her Divine Master's will,—tells us, that the repentance of our heart will not be accepted by God, unless it be accompanied by fasting and abstinence.
How great, then, is the illusion of those Christians, who forget their past sins, or compare themselves with others whose lives they take to have been worse than their own; and thus satisfied with themselves, can see no harm or danger in the easy life they intend to pass for the rest of their days! They will tell you, that there can be no need of their thinking of their past sins, for they have made a good Confession! Is not the life they have led since that time a sufficient proof of their solid piety? And why should any one speak to them about God's Justice and Mortification?—Accordingly, as soon as Lent approaches, they must get all manner of Dispensations. Abstinence is an inconvenience: Fasting has an effect upon their health, it would interfere with their occupations, it is such a change from their ordinary way of living: besides, there are so many people who are better than themselves, and yet who never fast or abstain:—and, as the idea never enters their minds of supplying for the penances prescribed by the Church with other penitential exercises, such persons as these, gradually and unsuspectingly, lose the Christian spirit.
The Church sees this frightful decay of supernatural energy; but she cherishes what is still left, by making her Lenten observances easier, year after year. With the hope of maintaining that little, and of seeing it strengthen for some better future, she leaves to the Justice of God her children, who hearken not to her, when she teaches them how they might, even now, propitiate his anger. Alas! these her children, of whom we are speaking, are quite satisfied that things should be as they are, and never think of judging their own conduct by the examples of Jesus and his Saints, or by the undeviating rules of Christian penance.
It is true, there are exceptions; but how rare they are, especially in our large towns! Groundless prejudices, idle excuses, bad example,—all tend to lead men from the observance of Lent. Is it not sad to hear people giving such a reason as this for their not fasting or abstaining,—because they feel them? Surely, they forget that the very aim of fasting and abstinence is to make these bodies of sin (Rom, vi. 6) suffer and feel. And what will they answer on the Day of Judgment, when our Saviour shall show them how the very Turks, who were the disciples of a gross and sensual religion, had the courage to practise, every year, the forty-days' austerities of their Ramadan?
But their own conduct will be their loudest accuser. These very persons, who persuade themselves that they have not strength enough to bear the abstinence and fasting of Lent, even in their present mitigated form, think nothing of going through incomparably greater fatigues for the sake of temporal gains or worldly enjoyments. Constitutions, which have broken down in the pursuit of pleasures,—which, to say the least, are frivolous, and always dangerous,—would have kept up all their vigour, had the laws of God and his Church, and not the desire to please the world, been the guide of their conduct. But such is the indifference, wherewith this non-observance of Lent is treated, that it never excites the slightest trouble or remorse of conscience; and they who are guilty of it will argue with you, that people who lived in the Middle Ages may perhaps have been able to keep Lent, but that now-a-days it is out of the question: and they can coolly say this in the face of all that the Church has done to adapt her Lenten discipline to the physical and moral weakness of the present generation! How comes it, that whilst these men have been trained in, or converted to, the Faith of their Fathers, they can forget that the observance of Lent is an essential mark of Catholicity; and that when the Protestants undertook to Reform her, in the 16th century, one of their chief grievances was that she insisted on her children mortifying themselves by Fasting and Abstinence!
But, it will be asked,—are there, then, no lawful Dispensations?—We answer, that there are; and that they are more needed now than in former ages, owing to the general weakness of our constitutions. Still, there is great danger of our deceiving ourselves. If we have strength to go through great fatigues, when our own self-love is gratified by them,—how is it we are too weak to observe Abstinence? If a slight inconvenience deter us from doing this penance, how shall we ever make expiation for our sins, for expiation is essentially painful to nature? The opinion of our physician, that Fasting will weaken us, may be false, or it may be correct;—but is not this mortification of the flesh the very object that the Church aims at, knowing that our soul will profit by the body being brought into subjection? But let us suppose the dispensation to be necessary; that our health would be impaired, and the duties of our state of life be neglected, if we were to observe the law of Lent to the letter:—do we, in such case, endeavour, by other works of penance, to supply for those, which our health does not allow us to observe? Are we grieved and humbled to find ourselves thus unable to join with the rest of the Faithful Children of the Church, in bearing the yoke of Lenten discipline? Do we ask of our Lord to grant us the grace, next year, of sharing in the merits of our fellow-Christians, and of observing those holy practices, which give the soul an assurance of mercy and pardon? If we do, the dispensation will not be detrimental to our spiritual interests; and when the Feast of Easter comes, inviting the Faithful to partake of its grand joys, we may confidently take our place side by side with those who have fasted; for though our bodily weakness has not permitted us to keep pace with them exteriorly, our heart has been faithful to the spirit of Lent.
How long a list of proofs we could still give of the negligence, into which the modern spirit of self-indulgence leads so many among us, in regard of Fasting and Abstinence! Thus, there are Catholics to be found in every part of the world who make their Easter Communion, and profess themselves to be Children of the Catholic Church, who yet have no idea of the obligations of Lent. Their very notion of Fasting and Abstinence is so vague, that they are not aware that these two practices are quite distinct one from the other; and that the dispensation from one does not, in any way, include a dispensation from the other. If they have, lawfully, or unlawfully, obtained exemption from Abstinence, it never so much as enters into their minds, that the obligation of Fasting is still binding upon them, during the whole Forty Days; or if they have had granted to them a dispensation from Fasting, they conclude that they may eat any kind of food they wish. Such ignorance as this is the natural result of the indifference herewith the commandments and traditions of the Church are treated.
So far, we have been speaking of the non-observance of Lent in its relation to individuals and Catholics; let us now say a few words upon the influence which that same non-observance has upon a whole people or nation. There are but few social questions which have not been ably and spiritedly treated of by the public writers of the age, who have devoted their talents to the study of what is called Political Economy; and it has often been a matter of surprise to us, that they should have overlooked a subject of such deep interest as this,—the results produced on society by the abolition of Lent, that is to say, of an institution, which, more than any other, keeps up in the public mind a keen sentiment of moral right and wrong, inasmuch as it imposes on a nation an annual expiation for sin. No shrewd penetration is needed to see the difference between two nations, one of which observes, each year, a forty days' penance in reparation of the violations committed against the Law of God, and another, whose very principles reject all such solemn reparation. And looking at the subject from another point of view,—is it not to be feared that the excessive use of animal food tends to weaken, rather than to strengthen, the constitution? We are convinced of it,—the time will come, when a greater proportion of vegetable, and less of animal, diet, will be considered as an essential means for maintaining the strength of the human frame.
Let, then, the Children of the Church courageously observe the Lenten practices of penance. Peace of conscience is essential to Christian life; and yet it is promised to none but truly penitent souls. Lost innocence is to be regained by the humble confession of the sin, when it is accompanied by the absolution of the Priest; but let the Faithful be on their guard against the dangerous error, which would persuade them that they have nothing to do when once pardoned. Let them remember the solemn warning given them by the Holy Ghost in the sacred scriptures: Be not without fear about sin forgiven! (Ecclus, v. 5) Our confidence of our having been forgiven should be in proportion to the change or conversion of our heart: the greater our present detestation of our past sins, and the more earnest our desire to do penance for them for the rest of our lives, the better founded is our confidence that they have been pardoned. Man knoweth not, as the same holy Volume assures us, whether he be worthy of love or hatred (Eccles, ix. 1); but he that keeps up within him the spirit of penance, has every reason to hope that God loves him.
But the courageous observance of the Church's precept of Fasting and Abstaining during Lent must be accompanied by those two other eminently good works, to which God so frequently urges us in the Scripture: Prayer and Alms-deeds. Just as under the term Fasting, the Church comprises all kinds of mortification; so, under the word Prayer, she includes all those exercises of piety whereby the soul holds intercourse with her God. More frequent attendance at the services of the Church, assisting daily at Mass, spiritual reading, meditation upon eternal truths and the Passion, hearing sermons, and, above all, the approaching the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist,—these are the chief means whereby the Faithful should offer to God the homage of Prayer, during this holy Season.
Almsdeeds comprise all the works of mercy to our neighbour, and are unanimously recommended by the Holy Doctors of the Church, as being the necessary complement of Fasting and Prayer during Lent. God has made it a law, to which he has graciously bound himself,—that charity shown towards our fellow-creatures, with the intention of pleasing our Creator, shall be rewarded as though it were done to Himself. How vividly this brings before us the reality and sacredness of the tie, which he would have to exist between all men! Such, indeed, is its necessity, that our Heavenly Father will not accept the love of any heart that refuses to show mercy: but, on the other hand, he accepts, as genuine and as done to himself, the charity of every Christian, who, by a work of mercy shown to a fellow-man, is really acknowledging and honouring that sublime union, which makes all men to be one family, with God as its Father. Hence it is, that Alms-deeds, done with this intention, are not merely acts of human kindness, but are raised to the dignity of acts of religion, which have God for their direct object, and have the power of appeasing his Divine Justice.
Let us remember the counsel given by the Archangel Raphael to Tobias. He was on the point of taking leave of this holy family, and returning to heaven; and these were his words: Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to lay up treasures of gold: for alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting (Tob, xii. 8, 9). Equally strong is the recommendation given to this virtue by the Book of Ecclesiasticus: Water quencheth a flaming fire, and alms resisteth sins (Ecclus, iii. 33). And again: Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall obtain help for thee against all evil (Ecclus, xxix. 15). The Christian should keep these consoling promises ever before his mind, but more especially during the season of Lent. The rich man should show the poor, whose whole year is a fast, that there is a time when even he has his self-imposed privations. The faithful observance of Lent naturally produces a saving; let that saving be given to Lazarus. Nothing, surely, could be more opposed to the spirit of this holy Season, than the keeping up a table, as richly and delicately provided, as at other periods of the year, when God permits us to use all the comforts compatible with the means he has given us. But how thoroughly Christian is it, that during these days of penance and charity, the life of the poor man should be made more comfortable, in proportion as that of the rich shares in the hardships and privations of his suffering brethren throughout the world! Poor and rich would then present themselves, with all the beauty of fraternal love upon them, at the Divine Banquet of the Paschal Feast, to which our Risen Jesus will invite us after these Forty Days are over.
There is one means more whereby we are to secure to ourselves the grand graces of Lent; it is the spirit of retirement and separation from the world. Our ordinary life, that is, such as it is during the rest of the year, should all be made to pay tribute to the holy Season of penance; otherwise, the salutary impression produced on us by the holy ceremony of Ash Wednesday will soon be effaced. The Christian ought, therefore, to forbid himself, during Lent, all the vain amusements, entertainments, and parties, of the world he lives in. As regards Theatres and Balls, which are the World in the very height of its power to do harm, no one that calls himself a disciple of Christ should ever be present at them, unless necessity, or the position he holds in society, oblige him to it: but if, from his own free choice, he throw himself amidst such dangers during the present holy Season of penance and recollection, he offers an insult to his character, and must needs cease to believe that he has sins to atone for, and a God to propitiate. The world, (we mean that part of it which is Christian,) has thrown off all those external indications of mourning and penance, which we read of as being so religiously observed in the Ages of Faith; let that pass: but there is one thing which can never change: God's Justice, and man's obligation to appease that Justice. The world may rebel as much as it will against the sentence, but the sentence is irrevocable: Unless ye do penance, ye shall all perish (St. Luke, xiii. 3). It is God's own word. Say, if you will, that few now-a-days give ear to it; but, for that very reason, many are lost. They, too, who hear this word, must not forget the warnings given them by our Divine Saviour himself, in the Gospel read to us on Sexagesima Sunday. He told us, how some of the Seed is trodden down by the passers-by, or eaten by the fowls of the air; how some falls on rocky soil, and gets parched; and how, again, some is choked by thorns. Let us be wise, and spare no pains to become that good ground, which not only receives the Divine Seed, but brings forth a hundredfold for the Easter harvest, which is at hand.
An unavoidable feeling will arise in the minds of some of our readers, as they peruse these pages, in which we have endeavoured to embody the spirit of the Church, such as it is expressed, not only in the Liturgy, but also in the decrees of Councils and in the writings of the Holy Fathers. The feeling we allude to, is one of regret at not finding, during this period of the Liturgical Year, the touching and exquisite poetry, which gave such a charm to the forty-days of our Christmas solemnity. First came Septuagesima, throwing its gloomy shade over those enchanting visions of the Mystery of Bethlehem; and now we have got into a desert land, with thorns at every step, and no springs of water to refresh us. Let us not complain, however; Holy Church knows our true wants, and is intent on supplying them. Neither must we be surprised at her insisting on a severer preparation for Easter, than for Christmas. At Christmas, we were to approach our Jesus as an Infant; all she put us through then, were the Advent exercises, for the Mysteries of our Redemption were but beginning.
And of those who went to Jesus' crib, there were many who, like the poor Shepherds of Bethlehem, might be called simple, at least in this sense,—that they did not sufficiently realise, either the holiness of their Incarnate God, or the misery and guilt of their own conscience. But now that this Son of the Eternal God has entered the path of penance; now that we are about to see him a victim to every humiliation, and suffering even a death upon a Cross;—the Church does not spare us; she rouses us from our ignorance and our self-satisfaction. She bids us strike our breasts, have compunction in our souls, mortify our bodies,—because we are sinners. Our whole life ought to be one of penance; fervent souls are ever doing penance; could anything be more just or necessary, than that we should do some penance during these days, when our Jesus is fasting in the desert, and is to die on Calvary? There is a sentence of this our Redeemer, which he spoke to the daughters of Jerusalem, on the day of his Passion; let us apply it to ourselves: If in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry? (St. Luke, xxiii. 31) Oh! what a revelation is here! and yet, by the mercy of the Jesus who speaks it, the dry wood may become the green, and so, not be burned.
The Church hopes, nay her whole energy is labouring, that this may be; therefore, she bids us bear the yoke; she gives us a Lent. Let us only courageously tread the way of penance, and the Light will gradually beam upon us. If we are now far off from our God by the sins that are upon us, this holy Season will be to us what the Saints call the Purgative Life, and will give us that purity, which will enable us to see our Lord in the glory of his victory over death. If, on the contrary, we are already living the Illuminative Life; if, during the three weeks of Septuagesima, we have bravely sounded the depth of our miseries, our Lent will give us a clearer view of Him who is our Light; and if we could acknowledge Him as our God when we saw him as the Babe of Bethlehem, our soul's eye will not fail to recognize him in the divine Penitent of the Desert, or in the bleeding Victim of Calvary.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Lent, Edition 1870
Related Links –
1. February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday.
2. Laws of Fasting and Abstinence.
3. Perfect Contrition.
4. The Seven Penitential Psalms.
5. Devotion to our Lord’s Passion.
6. Devotion to our Lady’s Sorrows.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me!