I am writing this column on the day before Ash Wednesday – a little late I’m afraid. But I would like to remind myself and others of the importance of this very special time in the Church Year. The word “Lent” comes, I believe, from an old English word, “Lengehtning” which refers to the lengthening of the day-light hours of Spring-time in preparation for Summer. Lent is the preparation for the great feast of Easter. The Latin word for Lent is Quadragesima, which means 40, because Lent lasts 40 days — not counting the Sundays. But, why 40? Why not 25 or 50, which are much more common in ordinary parlance? I believe the reason is that the number 40 is a very symbolic number in Sacred Scripture.
During the Flood in the time of Noah, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After escaping from Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, waiting for the Ten Commandments. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus spent 40 days in the Desert, fasting and praying, after His Baptism by St. John and in preparation for His Public Life. Saint Luke, chapter 4:1 says that Jesus was “Led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. He ate nothing during those forty days and when they were over He was hungry. It is almost certain that it was this last episode which led the Church to decide on the 40 Days of Lent. Jesus did not need to do penance because He is God. But we do, and He gave us an example.
Lent is a time for prayer. It is a time to take stock of our values as a result of which we live our daily lives. We are living in a very secularist world at present. It is said that technology has developed more in this century than it did since the beginning of time. I believe you can say that the grandparents of anybody who has reached the age of 70, never saw a motor car an airplane, a radio or a TV. And they certainly never heard of the internet. But today, our lives are to a great extent, governed by these technological wonders.
Needless to say, there has been sin in the world since Adam fell – even a casual reading of scripture confirms this. But it is also true to say that in our times we are simply inundated by the world and its values as never before, which makes it difficult to dwell on the importance of prayer, penance, and the existence of another world.
Lent is a reminder to us that “We have not here a lasting city, but seek one that is to come.”
So, I take the liberty to suggest that we – including myself – do some “fasting,” not only from food but also from TV, smoking, drinking and any other habits, which, though they may not be sinful, attach us more to the world and its values. Lent is also a time for more prayer, not just reading prayers, but talking personally to God, not only in Church but also at home or at work. God is everywhere.
For most of us perhaps control of the tongue would be the greatest penance. In a letter St. James the Apostle wrote, regarding the tongue: “Consider how a small fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It consists among our members as a world of malice defiling the whole body and setting the entire coprse of our lives on fire.”
Controlling our speech, means not speaking unkindly to or about other people, but, instead being kind and helpful to everybody, beginning, of course with our family and remembering the words of Our Lord, “If you did it to others, you did it to Me.” Both the good and the bad. I shall conclude with a verse, which, in a way sums up what I have been saying and could be used as an examination of conscience before we close our eyes in sleep: