The Mystery of Lent
from the Liturgical Year, 1870
Lent is filled with mystery. During the Septuagesima Time the number seventy recalls to our minds the seventy years of the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, where, after having purified themselves from their sins by penance, they returned again to their country and to their city of Jerusalem, then they celebrated their Easter. Now the holy Church, our Mother, brings before our minds the severe and mysterious number forty, that number which, as St Jerome says, is always filled with self-denial and with penance (In Ezech., c. xxix). When the race became corrupt, God wiped out the sin of man by the rain of forty days and forty nights upon the world, but after forty days Noah opened a window in the ark and found the water gone from the earth. When the Hebrews were called from the land of Egypt for forty years they fasted on manna, wandering in the desert, before they came to the promised land. When Moses went up the Mount of Sinai, for forty days and nights he fasted from food before he received the law graven on tablets of stone. When Elias came near to God, on Horeb, for forty days and nights he fasted (St. Augustine Sermon). Thus these two, the greatest men of old, whom the hand of the Lord hath raised up to do His mighty will, Moses on Mount Sinai, Elias on Mount Horeb, what do they figure but the law and the prophecy of the Old Testament pointing to the fast of forty days and nights of our Lord in the desert? Like shadowy forms they prefigured the Son of God, Who first established Lent when the Christians, His disciples, fast, following the example of our Master, when they keep the Lenten Services of the Church.
Let us follow our Lord in His Lent in the desert. “At that time,” says the Gospel. When? The moment after his baptism, to show that the Christian after baptism must prepare for a life of self denial. When? Thirty years before, on the same day, the three Magi adored him, a little child in the manger. When? One year from that day, at his mother’s request, he changed the water into wine. At that time, by contact with his most holy body, the waters of the earth received the power of washing the souls of men from sin in baptism. St. John the Baptist had preached penance from the banks of the Jordan. Now Christ was to preach penance from the sands of the desert. John had lived in fasting on locusts and wild honey from his twelfth year (Math. iii. 4). He alone was worthy of baptizing our Lord. Now Christ is led by the Spirit into the desert. By what spirit? By the Holy Spirit, to show that those who fast and do penance during Lent are led by the Holy Ghost. To show that the Church was led by the Holy Ghost in commanding all her children to fast during Lent. Into the desert He is led by the Holy Spirit, with the burning sun of Judea above His head by day, and the parched sands beneath His limbs by night; into the desert He is led, where the hot air burns His hallowed cheek, and the burning sands give way beneath His feet; into the desert He is led, where below Him stretches the Dead Sea, beneath whose stagnant, slimy waters lie the remains of Sodom, Gomorrah, Salem and the cities of the plains destroyed by God for their sins. Here comes our Lord to do penance and to fast for the sins of mankind. Here comes our Savior to keep the first Lent.
Not far from the banks of the Jordan rises a mountain harsh and savage in its outlines, which tradition calls the Lenten mountain (Gueranger, Le Careme, p. 46). From its rugged heights flow down the streams which water the plains of Jericho. From its rocky sides is seen the valley of the Dead Sea. From its inhospitable crags stretches out the gloomy expanse of that spot where once the five smiling cities of the plains sat amid the fertile land, but now, of all places of the earth, marked with the curse of God for the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. There came the Son of God to establish Lent. There came the Savior to show by penance how to gain our everlasting crown by fasting for our sins. There, deep amid the desert fastness, in a cave formed by the ancient upheaval of the mountain, there He found a home. There He fasted forty days and forty nights. No water cooled His burning tongue, no food repaired His weakening strength. The wild beasts of the wilderness were His companions. The heat of the simoon from the burning desert poisoned the air He breathed. The hot sands burned His feet. The rocks became His bed. Such was the beginning of the Christian Lent.
“After He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry;” for His nature was human, like ours. “And the tempter came.” He prepared Himself for temptation by fasting, to show us that we must prepare ourselves by fasting for the temptations of this life, to show that by fasting and by penance we are to overcome the enemies of our salvation. He was not hungry till at the end of His forty days of fasting, to show that He was God, for no one can fast for that time without being hungry. At the end of forty days He was hungry, to show that He was man, with all the weakness of our nature. Our nature had been badly hurt by Adam eating the forbidden fruit. Christ came to restore our nature to its lost inheritance in heaven, and He begins His public life by fasting. And now, at the end of that fast, the devil, who was the cause of our fall, found Him weak and hungry. He came to tempt Him in the desert, as he came to tempt our first parents in the garden. Let us draw near and see the temptation of our Lord.
The devil had seen Him baptized in the Jordan, he had heard the words of the holy Baptist point Him out as the “Lamb of God.” He had heard the words of the Father in heaven call Him His beloved Son. He had seen the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, with outspread wings overshadow Him. He says to himself, “Can this be the Son of God, this weak and hungry Man?” The demon is in doubt. He comes near to the person of Jesus Christ. He could not enter into His members as he can in ours, and tempt Him. He could only tempt Him from without, as he tempted our first parents from without. Coming near, he says, “If Thou be the Son of God, command these stones to be made bread.” Mark well the words. It is a temptation of pride. “If thou be the Son of God,” here is a chance to show your power. Long before the same demon came to our Mother Eve, and said, “In what day soever you shall eat thereof … you shall be as gods.” The temptation of pride. Thus He was tempted by being asked to eat, like our parents in the garden. Thus He was tempted by pride, as our mother Eve was tempted of old.
This life is a continual battle against temptation, and the Church, made up of the clergy and of the people, is like a great and powerful army in ceaseless battle array against our enemies. For that reason Lent is called the fighting time of the Church. For that reason, in the offices of the breviary we say the psalms, wherein is recalled that battle of the Christian against his old enemies, the powers of hell.
We are coming near to the sad sight of the death of our Lord. We are to see that rage of the Jews against Him which ended by His death on the cross. The Church prepares us beforehand, by celebrating certain feasts on each of the Fridays of Lent, which are like so many preparations for the tragedy of Good Friday. The Friday following the first Sunday of Lent we celebrate the memory of the holy Lance and Nails which pierced His Sacred Flesh; or, in some cases, the feast of the Crown of Thorns He wore upon His head. The Friday of the second week we say the office of the Linens, which Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped around His body when dead and laid in the tomb. On the third Friday we commemorate the memory of the five Wounds of our Lord; while the offices of the fourth Friday are devoted to the memory of the most precious Blood shed for our redemption (Brev. Rom.).
During the early ages of the Church, Lent was the time when the catechumens, that is, the newly converted Christians, prepared for baptism by fasting and by penance, before they were washed from their sins by the waters of regeneration on Holy Saturday. For many months they had been instructed for that holy rite by the saints of old, and in the Lenten Season they redoubled their penance and their prayers. Again, Lent was the time when the public penitents, those who were guilty of great sins, purged themselves from their crimes by public penance. From Ash Wednesday, when they were driven from the church, like Adam from Paradise, in sackcloth and in ashes, in tears and in fasting, they wept at the doors of the churches, till received again into the bosom of their mother, the Church, by confession and Communion on Holy Thursday. Because the people are no more saints like those of the early ages, although the Church in her motherly indulgence has changed these laws, still their traces are found in the ceremonies and the services of the Latin Rite.
O my God! who art all love, I thank Thee for having established the fast of Lent to purify my conscience, to strengthen my virtue, and to make me worthy of approaching Thy holy table. Grant me the grace to keep the fast as a Christian. I am resolved to love God above all things, and my neighbor as myself for the love of God; and, in testimony of this love, I will join fasting with prayer and alms. Amen