Lent is the way that Catholics prepare for the celebration of the Triduum (which means “three days”). The Triduum is the triple feast of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. These feasts commemorate the climax of the life of Jesus. Holy Thursday remembers the His famous last supper with his closest disciples, while Good Friday commemorates his arrest, trial, and death by crucifixion. Easter Sunday is celebration of the day when Jesus rose from the dead, and it is the greatest Christian feast day of the whole year.
From the first centuries of Christianity, Christians prepared themselves for this feast by fasting beforehand. Good Friday is the chief day of fasting. Fasting on this day expresses our sorrow for our personal sins, since Jesus died for our sins. It also professes our solidarity with Jesus because we are choosing to suffer on the day he suffered.
The old Catholic encyclopedia has an excellent article on the history and practices of Lent. The Church gradually extended the fast before Easter to 40 days. The number 40 is a Biblical number for penance and purification; the flood in Noah’s time lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the people of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:1-11).
In the Catholic Church, Lent is counted as 40 weekdays and 6 Sundays; the weekdays were traditionally fast days while the Sundays were not. The total number of days counting backwards for Easter Sunday means that Lent begins on a Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday.
This is different from the Eastern Orthodox churches; they count 40 days including Sundays and so Great Lent begins on a Monday. The Orthodox also have a very strong fasting regimen. They are supposed to fast from all meat and fish (anything with a backbone), as well as from all dairy products, eggs, oil and wine for all of Lent.
During the early Middle Ages, Catholics were observing a fast similar to the Orthodox although it was not nearly so strict. Catholics in Europe fasted from flesh meat (the meat of mammals and birds), as well as from foods that came from flesh: eggs, lard, and dairy products. This form of penance gave Fat Tuesday its name (Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday), because people would eat up the lard, butter, eggs and meat that they had in the house on the day before Ash Wednesday. This is also the reason why eggs are a traditional way to celebrate Easter.
Today the official penance during Lent has become much smaller. Catholics are obliged to observe a day of fasting (eating only one meal) on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, and to abstain from flesh mean on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. Outside of these basic practices, Catholics are encouraged to choose other forms of penance for themselves.
Why do Catholics do penance?
Penance refers to every form of voluntary self-denial. The first and most important reason for penance is because we are sinners. All sins deserve punishment, and penance means freely choosing to suffer something. Therefore, penance is the strongest and clearest way to admit that we are sinners and we deserve to suffer because of our sins.
The Bible gives many great examples of people doing penance, including fasting, lying prostrate on the ground, putting on sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and giving money to the poor. St. John the Baptist is a living example of penance. He wore a tunic of camel’s hair (a durable but rough material) and ate locusts and wild honey (a pretty extreme form of fasting). John did penance and preached repentance, and these things naturally go together. He first admitted his own sins by his own lifestyle choices, and then he told other people that they needed to admit their sins.
I say that this is the first and most important reason for doing penance because other reasons for doing penance don’t quite get to the heart of the matter. Lenten penance is not fundamentally about overcoming bad habits or losing some weight. These are side-benefits that might happen, and they are good reasons for choosing one particular penance over another, but they are not the reason we do penance.
The penance during Lent is also not fundamentally about overcoming injustices in the world or making do with less so that others can have more. There is certainly a social justice aspect to Lenten penance, but the poor must also do penance. The heart of the matter is that we are sinners and penance is how we confess with our bodies that we are rebellious and we need God’s mercy.
Admitting we are sinners is the key to Lent because we are preparing for Holy Week, which is the great celebration of how God saved sinners. Jesus’ death on the cross was an offering of His life as a sacrifice for sinners. Admitting that we are sinners is the only way to place ourselves where we need to be in order to receive salvation.
– The second important reason to do penance is to follow Jesus more closely. In the Gospel, Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24-25). A necessary foundation for the whole Christian life is self-denial, because I need to deny (reject) myself as master of myself in order to let Jesus be my master.
Penance is self-denial. Penance is avoiding things that we want to have, like chocolate, meat, beer, and television. Penance is giving up things that we want to keep, like giving some of our money away. Penance is doing things we don’t want to do, like being kind to someone we don’t like. Penance is forcing ourselves to accept things we don’t want, like choosing not to defend ourselves when we are being questioned or criticized. Rather than doing what would be easy for us and avoiding what would be hard, we are choosing the opposite of what would be easy for us.
This is essential to living as a Christian because the Gospel of Jesus must be our guide and not our own personal preferences. Our personal preferences are fine when they line up with the Gospel; when we want to forgive the person who has hurt us that is wonderful. However, when our preferences conflict with the Gospel we need to ignore them and follow the Gospel. Penance is training ourselves to ignore our likes and dislikes, and this allows us to follow Jesus more closely.
– Finally, a third great reason for doing penance is to make a change in our life. As human beings, we have the capacity to tolerate a rather large gap between what we should be doing and what we are doing. We should be eating vegetables but we are eating fast food; we should be getting exercise but we are sitting on the couch; we should going to bed but we are watching television; we should talk less and listen more but we are not taking time for people; we should be kind but we are short and impatient, and so on and so forth.
While we know life should be different, water runs downhill and so do we. It is very easy to sink to a lower level and very hard to rise to a higher level. Lent is one of the best ways to actually make a change. First, it gives us a reasonable amount of time to work with, because 40 days is manageable and not overwhelming. Second, it gives us the support of a community because our whole church is supposed to be doing something better. Third, 40 days seems to be about the time it takes to make a new habit really stick. All these things conspire to mean that Lent is a perfect opportunity to work against our natural laziness and do something we know we should be doing, and it comes around every year +