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The Lent environment

PUBLISHED 31 March 2022
by Cathy Jenkins

In Australia, the transition into Lent also signals (in most states, at least) a move from summer into autumn. The evenings grow cooler, giving way to darker mornings. And there is a stillness about autumn that encourages a quietening of the spirit—perhaps bringing with it an invitation to cultivate a Lenten spirit. 

From the moment we hear the cry from the Book of Joel on Ash Wednesday, ‘No, no—it is the Lord who speaks—come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning’ (Joel 2:12), we are invited to plunge into a different world, a different way of being, a time for us to strip away the excess of our lives enabling us to be more attentive to God’s presence. 

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each year, and our first meeting with the Lenten Jesus is from Matthew’s Gospel. This is the teaching Jesus, who offers us an insight into how to live our Lent. It is from the texts of this day that we can see where the ancient Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving have emerged. In addition, we are reminded that God ‘sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you’ (Matthew 6:18). 

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are three practical strategies that, if we accept the invitation, will help us return to God. The liturgical elements of Lent have come from careful reflection on the Scriptures and the deep desire to keep alive the mystery that is celebrated. From the earliest times in Jewish-Christian history, there has been a yearning to prepare for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ or the Pascha (Passover). The rituals and symbols associated with Lent enable us to engage more deeply in this change-of-heart time. 

The colour of Lent

Many of us are aware that colour can affect our mood and feelings. Lent is rich in colour, helping reveal to us the sentiments of the season. On Ash Wednesday, we move from the green of Ordinary Time to violet. Over time, violet (or purple) has come to symbolise repentance and penance, and it is a colour that is also associated with royalty. In addition to vestments, many churches use altar and/or lectern frontals or panels of colour as a further reminder that the season has changed. Parishes who have printed bulletins may choose to print on purple paper. Depending on local practice, rose may replace violet on Laetare Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent), softening the tone for the fourth Sunday and reinforcing the entrance antiphon for this Sunday: ‘Rejoice, Jerusalem and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast’ (cf Isaiah 66:10–11).

The violet vestments of the five weeks of Lent give way to red for Passion Sunday; liturgically we notice that red is also the liturgical colour for Pentecost Sunday, for the Sacrament of Confirmation, for Good Friday and for when the feast day of a martyr is celebrated. We may associate red with danger, fire, blood and high emotion. We return to violet for the remainder of Holy Week and move to white for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, and white and gold for the Easter Vigil and following Sundays of Easter. White is the colour of celebration and joy. 

The altar of Lent

As much as possible, flowers are avoided in the church during Lent, with this sparseness being transformed at the Easter Vigil or dawn Easter service by flowers and greenery symbolising new life. The General Instruction to the Roman Missal advises that ‘Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar … During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), solemnities, and feasts are exceptions’ (§ 305). There is something about the lack of flowers that will also remind us that this is a time of stripping away or paring back, a time of simplicity. 

The sound of Lent

Music is simplified, and we notice the absence of the celebratory Gloria and use of the term Alleluia. In keeping with the other aspect of the season, it is also an opportunity for the music of Lent to invite contemplation and penance. It may also be helpful to think about how silence is used in the liturgy during Lent. Perhaps instead of a post-Communion hymn, for example, there could be a period of silence. It might be helpful to provide some information to the community if silence is to be used in a different way—this will save the anxious looks from ministers and members of the congregation. It can sometimes be assumed that silence means something has gone awry!

The symbols of Lent

How parishes honour the call to pray, fast and give alms may differ; there may be an emphasis on Project Compassion with a Project Compassion box prominently displayed. This offers a visual reminder that we are called to be generous, to give alms. Perhaps a bowl of ashes from Ash Wednesday is placed in front of the lectern as a reminder that we are in a time of repentance. Perhaps the holy water jar is placed on its side as part of a Lent display reminding us that we are preparing to receive the water of life at the Easter Vigil ceremony. 

The prayer of Lent

Opportunities may be provided for communal prayer and reflection. The psalms of Lent may provide an opportunity for a parish focus, or perhaps a weekly opportunity to attend the evening prayer of the Church. Some parishes may offer the Stations of the Cross during Lent, or perhaps on some evenings in Lent, the church may be left open for people to stop and ‘pay a visit’. Lent may also encourage a greater emphasis on a daily reading of the Word. The Lent readings are rich with image and ancient stories, and provide a wonderful opportunity to encourage a form of lectio divina.

Perhaps some other spiritual reading opportunities could be provided for the community: readings about the patron saint of the parish could be made available, or perhaps an invitation to read some of the great spiritual writers such as Thomas Merton or Teresa of Avila. Or a more contemporary focus could be adopted, with readings from John O’Donohue or Ron Rolheiser, for example. Perhaps a link to some reading could be offered as part of the Lent bulletin, inviting people into contemplation. It might be as simple as inviting the community to take into their hearts every day the psalm response for that Sunday of Lent. Imagine if everyone in our community spent the week praying the following psalm responses two or three times a day:

  • Week 1: Be with me when I am in trouble—Psalm 90 (91)
  • Week 2: The Lord is my light and my salvation—Psalm 26 (27)
  • Week 3: The Lord is kind and merciful—Psalm 102 (103)
  • Week 4: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord—Psalm 33 (34)
  • Week 5: The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy—Psalm 125 (126)

The scripture of Lent

This year we journey through Lent with the Gospel of Luke (Year C) as our guide on Sundays; the weekday Lent readings are from Year II. RCIA parishes may choose to build their Sunday liturgy around the Year A readings, which are taken from the Gospel of John because they speak more directly to the scrutiny period. This is a local decision, and consideration should be given to what will best suit the community. Lent may be an opportunity for parishes to reinvigorate a focus on the reading of Scripture and there are a variety of Lent programs to support this.

The food of Lent

  • Traditionally, fasting has been a significant part of the Catholic imagination. Many of our older Catholics hold the memory of not breaking their feast until attendance at early Mass on a Sunday and recall the emphasis on fasting prior to reception of Communion. Each year, the first Sunday of Lent situates Jesus in the wilderness, where he prays, fasts and is tempted. Technically, adults are now called to fast on two days in the liturgical calendar: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It may be helpful in this diet-conscious world of ours to encourage people to think about the difference between dieting and fasting. We ‘fast’ to enable a heightened sense of what it means to create a space for God to fill us. When we fast, we become aware of an emptiness or a longing; it is a reminder that there is more to life than our lived reality, a reminder to us to turn our hearts and minds towards God, a reminder that Jesus is the bread of life. 

The penance of Lent

Guided by the Lenten Scriptures and our prayers, we enter more deeply into the spirit of Lent. We may become more aware of the penitential nature of the season, and we may be drawn to opportunities to participate in the sacrament of Penance. At this moment in our history, the sacrament of Penance is not widely accessed. Perhaps Lent provides an opportunity for a gentle reminder about the beauty of this sacrament and about the need for all of us to say sorry. A particular treatment of the penitential rite at Mass during Lent may assist with this. Over the days of Lent, a penitential litany could be developed, with the community invited to add to it and to ponder it during the days of Lent. 

The journey of Lent

Some years ago, the spiritual writer Joyce Rupp walked the Camino de Santiago with a friend and reflected upon this experience in a book called Walk in a relaxed manner: Life lessons from the Camino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, c. 2005). She commences her pilgrim journey with this reflection:

Imagine walking on a path where millions of feet from other lands and cultures have previously walked, feet that have trod hundreds of miles to reach a sacred site. Think of what it would be like to have that same path and those same stones beneath your feet as you, too, walk for many weeks to reach the same destination (p. 26). 

Perhaps this is a little like the path we walk in Lent. This Lenten path has been walked by millions of our ancestors. And in Joyce Rupp’s words, ‘Each of us has a Camino, a road of life. This road allows us access to the spiritual richness of those who have travelled before us and those who travel with us now’ (p. 32).

As the forty days of Lent progress, the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross and beyond intensifies. This physical journey of Jesus offers readers a sense of urgency. Each year the rich scriptural passages take us on a journey that prepares us for Holy Week and the dramatic recalling of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

And perhaps this is a little of what we are trying to do when we create an environment for people of faith to enter into the Lenten spirit. It is a way of reminding us that in Lent we join with pilgrims all over the world as we once again bring our joys, troubles and hopes and add them to the cross that Jesus continues to carry for us. But we do this in the sure knowledge that in the echo of our ancestors and the splash of water on Easter night, we can proclaim that Jesus, who was once was dead, is alive. 

Cathy Jenkins is the Executive Director: Mission Leadership at Mercy Health. She has also worked as a teacher, in education-system leadership with the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Diocese of Sandhurst, as a publisher and editor, and as a leader of evangelisation for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. She is a member for the Australian Catholic Church Plenary Council. 
This has been adapted from an article first published in The Summit Online in 2019.

From The Summit Online

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Advent and Christmas: Useful links
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Music and hymns: Useful links
Prayer: Useful links
Word of God Sunday: Useful links
Synod 2021–2023: Information and resources
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