In many countries the period before Lent is called “Carnival,” originally a Latin phrase meaning literally “farewell to meat.” The phrase was a reference to the rather rigorous approach to the whole extended season of Lent observed by the faithful and the devout in many places.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and extends until the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. However the Lenten fast excludes the Sundays of Lent, as well as Holy Thursday evening, but includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday until the Vigil. Thus 40 days.
The “40” commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, before beginning his public ministry. During this period he devoted himself to fasting and prayer and experienced temptation. Our own commemoration also properly includes fasting and prayer, as well as good works and giving. The entire exercise is meant to be a retreat or renewal in our faith and a preparation for the celebration of Easter, in which we renew the promises of our Baptism.
Lent is a lovely idea…if undertaken with resolve and purpose. However its likely to be just an annoying distraction if we approach it with the “ashes to go” mentality. I am not criticizing churches that make the reception of ashes easy and accessible. But I am wary of downsizing a whole season of penance and prayer to a quick consumer transaction.
Here at Nativity we have established the tradition in recent years of an extended prayer time to kick off the season. One hour of prayer for each of the days of Lent. Our “40 Hours of Prayer” includes Eucharistic Adoration, devotions such as the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, sung worship and the celebration of Mass…as well as the distribution of ashes.
We take our time, not because we’re holier or more pious…we’re not for sure. We take our time because we need it.
There is no “grab and go” for Lent, it can’t be done on the fly or in the express check out lane. It takes time. It takes time to get into the groove of penance and prayer and sacrifice, nothing in us wants to do it. It takes time to find the right rhythm for our sacrifice, and it takes time to see it through.
Lent just takes time…40 days to be precise.