Lenten practices extend back to Old Testament

Archbishop Gregory M Aymond    Where does the Catholic tradition of Lent come from?
    It’s rooted in the Old Testament tradition of repentance, fasting and prayer. The custom of wearing sackcloth and ashes was meant to show our realization that we need to have a change of heart in order to draw closer to God and to be more loving to others. In the New Testament, before Jesus began his public ministry, he fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert as he continued to open himself to the Father and prepared to go forth to preach not only repentance but also the love of God the Father.
    Did the practice of Lent develop over time?
    From the Old Testament to the time of John the Baptist and then to Jesus, there always was a call to repentance and a change of heart. Through the centuries, it’s taken on different rituals and practices, but the practice that we have now is centuries old.
    What is the symbolism of placing ashes on the forehead?
    Years ago – and they still do this in some monastic monasteries – the ashes were actually scattered on the top of your head. That was in keeping with the idea of wearing sackcloth and ashes. Today we wear ashes on the forehead publicly. The ashes say: “I am loved by God. I believe God wants the best for me and loves me in my goodness. God also loves me in spite of the fact that I embrace evil. I am willing to repent and have a change of heart.” By this sign, I am inviting God to come closer to me and to help me experience a change of heart. During Lent, it’s not so much that we draw closer to God but that we open our hearts so that God can draw closer to us – not only to love us but also to help us know our weaknesses, sins and failures. That leads us to a change of heart. Naturally, many of us can come up with three or five or 10 ways in which we can change, but we only have 40 days of Lent! That’s why I think it would be better for us to choose one way in which God is calling us to experience a change of heart. Most often a change of heart has to do with a change of attitude, because actions and words come from attitudes. If I allow God to help me change my attitude, then my words and my actions will follow.
    Why does the church call Catholics to prayer, fasting and sacrifice during Lent?
    This prepares us for a change of heart. We invite God into our darkness – into the dark corners of our hearts – that we may be ashamed of. We ask him to heal and forgive us and show us the way to new life.
    Why does the priest wear purple vestments during most weeks of Lent?
    Purple is a sign of repentance. There is one week in Lent called “Gaudete Sunday” where pink or rose-colored vestments are allowed to be worn as a sign that we are getting closer to the end of Lent and moving toward the joyful feast of Easter. Lent not only calls us to repentance but also helps us prepare our hearts to celebrate the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ and to celebrate that with great openness of heart.
    Why are the Gloria and the Alleluia not sung during Lent?
    Actually, the liturgies during Lent, even the Sunday liturgies, are supposed to be simpler and quieter. Unfortunately, that is not practiced in many churches. In order to emphasize that, we do not sing the Gloria, which is a song of praise. We place more emphasis on the Penitential Rite, which comes right before it. We don’t use the Alleluia because that specific word, which means the high praise of God, is used for Easter. We do not use the Alleluia for the six weeks of Lent so that the word has more reverence and triumphalism at Easter.
    You have said that Jesus taught that some things are not accomplished except through prayer and fasting. Why are prayer and fasting so powerful?
    Through prayer God changes our hearts and the hearts of others that we can embrace not just ourselves and our own dreams but the dreams of God. By fasting, we discipline and deny our bodies in order that we can hunger for that which is of God. Our hunger for food is a sign of our hunger for God and our hunger for peace and justice. I have suggested during this Lent that we should pray and fast so that we may become a more peaceful city and region and end this scourge of violence, murder and racism. This is the New Battle of New Orleans. I also call us to fast and pray for those who have lost loved ones during these years and also for those who have spilled their blood in the streets because of violence and murder. How many gallons of blood have been spilled in our streets because of hatred and a lack of respect for human life? Let us pray and fast for those people who have spilled their blood that they will have the fullness of eternal life. Let us pray and fast for those who perpetrated the killing that God will mercifully forgive them and that they will have a change of heart, if not in life, perhaps in death. Let us pray and fast for those who have lost loved ones, that they will know God’s peace.
    Are we obliged to follow our personal Lenten sacrifices on the Sundays of Lent?
    Our tradition says that on the Sundays of Lent, we are exempt from the sacrifices we have chosen to make during Lent. The reason for that is every Sunday is by itself a little Easter or a sign of resurrection. If a person chooses a penance, he or she is exempt from that. We can look at the laws of fasting and abstinence during the Lenten season and easily get hung up on the details and the requirements, but I don’t think at the end of life or on Easter Sunday God is going to ask us about all these details. He will ask us, “Did you live the spirit of repentance during Lent? Did you do something extra or deprive yourself of something so that I could come closer to you so that you became more loving to others?”
    Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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