Introduction to Lent - Extraordinary Form (Tridentine)

Theme: Christ in the Desert, the Babylonian Captivity continued from Septuagesima
Color: Violet
Mood: Penance
Symbols: Cross, crown of thorns, three nails, Chalice, Host
Length: Ash Wednesday to Vespers of Holy Saturday

Lent (the word “Lent” comes from the Old English “lencten,” meaning “springtime) lasts from Ash Wednesday to the Vespers of Holy Saturday—forty days + six Sundays which don’t count as “Lent” liturgically. The Latin name for Lent, Quadragesima, means forty and refers to the forty days Christ spent in the desert which is the origin of the Season.The last two weeks of Lent are known as “Passiontide,” made up of Passion Week and Holy Week. The last three days of Holy Week—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—are known as the “Sacred Triduum.”

The focus of this Season is the Cross and penance, penance, penance as we imitate Christ’s forty days of fasting, like Moses and Elias before Him, and await the triumph of Easter. We fast (see below), abstain, mortify the flesh, give alms, and think more of charitable works. Awakening each morning with the thought, “How might I make amends for my sins? How can I serve God in a reparative way? How can I serve others today?” is the attitude to have.

We also practice mortifications by “giving up something” that would be a sacrifice to do without. The sacrifice could be anything from desserts to television to the marital embrace, and it can entail, too, taking on something unpleasant that we’d normally avoid, for example, going out of one’s way to do another’s chores, performing “random acts of kindness,” etc. A practice that might help some, especially small children, to think sacrificially is to make use of “Sacrifice Beads” in the same way that St. Thérèse of Lisieux did as a child.

Because of the focus on penance and reparation, it is traditional to make sure we go to Confession at least once during this Season to fulfill the precept of the Church that we go to Confession at least once a year, and receive the Eucharist at least once a year during Eastertide. A beautiful old custom associated with Lenten Confession is to, before going to see the priest, bow before each member of your household and to any you’ve sinned against, and say, “In the Name of Christ, forgive me if I’ve offended you.” One responds with “God will forgive you.” Done with an extensive examination of conscience and a sincere heart, this practice can be quite healing (also note that confessing sins to a priest is a Sacrament which remits mortal and venial sins; confessing sins to those you’ve offended is a sacramental which, like all sacramentals one piously takes advantage of, remits venial sins. Both are quite good for the soul!)

In addition to mortification and charity, seeing and living Lent as a forty day spiritual retreat is a good thing to do. Spiritual reading should be engaged in (over and above one’s regular Lectio Divina). Maria von Trapp recommended “the Book of Jeremias and the works of Saints, such as The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross; The Introduction to a Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales; The Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux; The Spiritual Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila; the Soul of the Apostolate, by Abbot Chautard; the books of Abbot Marmion, and similar works.”

As to prayer, praying the beautiful Seven Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142) is a traditional practice. It is most traditional to pray all of these each day of Lent, but if time is an issue, you can pray them all on just the Fridays of Lent, or, because there are seven of them, and seven Fridays in Lent, you might want to consider praying one on each Friday. These Psalms, which include the Psalms “Miserére” and “De Profundis,” are perfect expressions of contrition and prayers for mercy. So apt are these Psalms at expressing contrition that, as he lay dying in A.D. 430, St. Augustine asked that a monk write them in large letters near his bed so he could easily read them.

Another great prayer for this season is that of St. Ephraem, Doctor of the Church (d. 373). This prayer is often prayed with a prostration after each stanza:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power, and idle talk;

But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.

In the East, this prayer is prayed liturgically during Lent and is followed by “O God, cleanse me a sinner” prayed twelve times, with a bow following each, and one last prostration.

Also, on all Fridays during Lent, one may gain a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, by reciting the En ego, O bone et dulcissime Iesu (Prayer Before a Crucifix) before an image of Christ crucified.

Food in Lent

According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the rule for the universal Church during Lent is abstain on all Fridays (inside or outside of Lent) and to both fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Some traditional Catholics might follow the older pattern of fasting and abstinence during this time, which for the universal Church required:

  • Ash Wednesday, all Fridays, and all Saturdays: fasting and total abstinence. This means 3 meatless meals – with the two smaller meals not equalling in size the main meal of the day – and no snacking.
  • Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays (except Ash Wednesday), and Thursdays: fasting and partial abstinence from meat. This means three meals – with the two smaller meals not equalling in size the main meal of the day – and no snacking, but meat can be eaten at the principle meal.

On those days of fasting an abstinence, meatless soup is traditional (see recipes). Sundays, of course, are always free of fasting and abstinence; even in the heart of Lent, Sundays are about the glorious Resurrection. This pattern of fasting and abstinence ends after the Vigil Mass of Holy Saturday.

As to special Lenten foods, vegetables, seafoods, salads, pastas, and beans mark the Season, in addition to the meatless soups. The fasting of this time once even precluded the eating of eggs and fats, so the chewy pretzel became the bread and symbol of the times. They’d always been a Christian food, ever since Roman times, their very shape being the creation of monks. The three holes represent the Holy Trinity, and the twists of the dough represent the arms of someone praying. In fact, the word “pretzel” is a German word deriving ultimately from the Latin “bracellae,” meaning “little arms” (the Vatican has the oldest known representation of a pretzel, found on a 5th c. manuscript).