From the beginning of the 2nd century, Christians began preparing for Easter with two days of fasting and penitence. Later, this practice was applied to all of Holy Week. By 325, the Council of Nicea already testifies to a 40-day preparation for Easter, after the “model” of Jesus who spent 40 days in the desert—not to mention other highly significant 40-day or 40-year periods such as the flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the 40-year sojourn of the peoplee of Israel in the desert, and the 40 days in which Moses fasted on Mount Sinai, or Elijah on Mount Horeb.
At first, Lent began six Sundays prior to Easter. But given the fact that Sundays were not fast days, beginning in the 5th century, Holy Thursday and Good Friday were separated from the Easter Triduum, and were calculated as part of the forty days of Lent. It was later decided to anticipate the beginning of Lent by four days. Thus, Ash Wednesday was designated as the beginning of Lent and the public penitence required by those who had committed serious crimes (apostasy, murder, adultery).
Dressed in penitential dress, and sprinkled with ashes, these penitents would circulate throughout the cities, reminders of those who are “thrown out of paradise”. Toward the end of the 11th century, the practice of public penance began to fade out, and the practice of imposing ashes on the faithful took its place. In the 12th century, it became customary to obtain the ashes from the olive (or palm) branches used the previous year.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18)
Lent is a time of experiencing the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, tempted by Satan. We might think of a desert in the classic sense of sand and solitude, of dangers and ambushes. But the “deserts” that challenge us today have more to do with life’s toils and difficulties, or the emptiness we feel in life. Thus, Lent is a grace-filled time, a period of time that Father Tonino Bello defined as, “life on a scale”, a time in which we are urged to let go of the shortcuts of easy compromises, of distrust, of sin, and instead, to spend this period with Jesus so as to learn how to weigh priorities correctly.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving
Setting aside time to listen to the Word of God and to pray is an invitation to place God above ourselves. To fast means to renounce everything that we fill ourselves with in so many ways, without ever satisfying our hearts.
Prayer and the Eucharist satisfy our hearts and give meaning to life because only love satisfies our true hunger and thirst for life and happiness.
Prayer opens the heart to truth; fasting teaches us how to choose what really matters in life; almsgiving is a natural consequence of these two. There are people who hold that “abstaining from eating meat” has been done away with.
Even if it does not cost us anything to “abstain from eating meat”, it still costs us to obey the Church, our Mother and Teacher, who still invites us to do this, and tells us it is still a relevant act of penance. Besides this, we should not forget to fast from such things as selfishness, distrust, false securities, hatred, indifference…