A Sense of Lent

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes without ceremony on Holy Thursday, before the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.  At that point, the Lenten fast, primarily a spiritual discipline, ceases so that after the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the more anticipatory paschal fast may begin, continuing until the Easter Vigil.

In giving the church a renewed sense of Lent, the Second Vatican Council set forth the liturgical agenda:

Lent is marked by two themes, the baptismal and the penitential.... More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of those from an earlier era are to be restored as may seem advisable.... During Lent penance should be not only inward and individual, but also outward and social. 


The First Sunday of Lent is marked by two celebrations:

At the cathedral: the Rite of Election.  The elect, that is, those preparing for initiation at Easter, enter into a period of final preparation, a time of purification and enlightenment.  This rite gives public acknowledgment to the fact that God has elected, or chosen, these people.  The inscription of names stands as a pledge of fidelity on the part of the elect to complete the process they have begun.

At the parish: the Rite of Sending.  This rite can help the local community mark the day and enter into this important event in the lives of the elect, although as many parishioners as possible should accompany the parish's catechumens to the diocesan celebration.

ELECT: At the parish this happens usually during the Sunday mass.  Present at the liturgy of the word, as living icons of the season's baptismal character, the sisters and brothers who are the elect, together with their godparents or sponsors, are the principal symbols of Lent.  It makes little sense to come up with Lenten decorations if these living "decorations" are missing!  Nothing can challenge the community to the conversion proper to Lent more dramatically than the call to join in supporting, inspiring and assisting toward the font those who are about to join us.  The presence of the elect acts upon the community in two particular ways:

Scrutinies.  Celebrated during the principal Sunday Eucharist  on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, the scrutinies draw from and build upon the Year A gospel readings.  These rites confer strength on the elect and confront all the faithful present with the need for conversion.

Dismissal.  The Rite of Christian Initiation of adults has restored the ancient dismissal rite by which those not fully initiated depart from the assembly after the liturgy of the word and before the Creed and general intercessions.  Their departure is neither an expulsion nor, worse, a statement of their unworthiness.  Rather, it recognizes that from time immemorial, initiation has been sealed by admitting the neophytes to the community's holy kiss and holy meal.  A side effect of this dramatic dismissal is the impression made upon the faithful to treasure the great gifts which, having shared in so often, we can too easily take for granted.

·INFANT BAPTISM: Another way to emphasize the nature of Lent as a season of preparation for baptism is to refrain from baptizing infants during Lent (except as emergency or pastoral need may require).  Instead, appropriate formation for parents and godparents of infants to be baptized would include full participation in the liturgies of Lent, particularly the scrutinies.  The infants might be baptized at the Easter Vigil, or at one of the Masses during the day on Easter Sunday or one of the Sundays of Easter.


A fifth-century homily outlines the ideal of a full Lenten observance, a journey that leads us back to God while leading us also to one another:

Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.  Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting.  Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated.  If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.  So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others.  When you fast, see the fasting of others.  If you hope for mercy, show mercy.  If you look for kindness, show kindness.  If you want to receive, give. (Peter Chrysologus, Office of Readings, Tuesday, Third Week of Lent)

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional disciplines of the observance of Lent.  These practices are not meant to be an indulgence in masochism or an exercise in self-improvement.  Rather, as Benedict's Rule reminded us, they should be part of every Christian life in every season of the year.  Their purpose in Lent is to lead those already initiated back to the fervor that should flow continually from the grace of baptism.  As the path of the elect leads to the sacraments of initiation, the path of the faithful should lead to the sacrament of penance, which releases us from sin, restores us to baptismal innocence and reconciles us to God and the community.

The Look of Lent

The worship space should be: a climate that anyone walking into church should sense immediately.  As with planning texts, music and ritual patterns, so with decorations. 

Outside the Church

The space that leads into the place of worship must be thought of as "the beginning before the beginning." This means that even when we have attended to the worship space and the other details of the liturgy, the work is still not done.
People driving into the parking lot and walking onto the grounds should know immediately from what they see that Lent has begun.  Think of the journey through the parking lot, up the walkway and into the church as a kind of entrance procession.  Malls and marketplaces, businesses and homes make outdoor announcements with flags, colors, and wreaths.  Why not the House of God, the home of God's family, the community's gathering place?  Parking lots, church grounds, paths and walkways, doorways and vestibule all can announce that business as usual has been suspended and that keeping Lent is the business of the day.

Inside the Church
The Lenten climate should signal as we enter the building that Lent has begun, a time of serious and sustained reflection, a time of attention to the things that really matter.  This is the goal of the church's liturgical legislation.  The purpose of banning floral arrangements except on Laetare Sunday and solemnities is visual austerity- The suspension of instrumental music, festive preludes, postludes, interludes, and any instrumentation except that needed to sustain the assembly's singing ensures aural sobriety.

ASSEMBLY- The first focal point of decorating is often the last one we would think of- the place of the assembly.  Decorating this area is not to teach or entertain but to create "an atmosphere and a mood" 
The area high over the heads of the congregation or along the walls is usually a good area for strong decoration that signals the season.  For example, a cluster of large branches.... an array of purple or gray fabric hangings grabs people's attention when they first enter the worship space, but it does not necessarily demand attention during the liturgy. 

'Winter-turning-into-spring" can be the approach, especially in this year's late Lent.  This motif reinforces the continuity of the whole paschal season, from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost.

FONT: A visual signal that Lent is a time of preparation for baptism is an empty font (and empty holy water stoups).  On the one hand, merely leaving them empty can be mistaken for neglect.  On the other hand, some attempts at creativity misfire: Sand in the holy water stoups turns them into hotel lobby ashtrays.  The baptismal font should be drained, cleaned and sealed in a noble manner before Ash Wednesday.  A bold and simple cross of purple cloth placed over the font is expressive and elegant, as is putting the paschal candle away except for funerals and leaving the ambry open and empty of chrism.  Place the Book of the Elect near the font, inviting prayer for those about to be initiated.

CROSS-: The cross is a supremely important item in Catholic worship.  Except during the Easter Vigil when the paschal candle leads the way, the cross is the community's standard and shield, borne before us whenever we move in pilgrimage.  The cross is at the head of the community for the penitential procession at the beginning of Lent.  For the Palm Sunday procession, it is to be "suitably adorned".  On Good Friday, it is venerated with a solemnity usually reserved to the Eucharist.  Perhaps it leads the way into every Sunday Eucharist.  Lent is the time to ask some questions:

 What does the community's processional cross look like?

Is the same cross set in the sanctuary during the liturgy?  Venerated on Good Friday?  Should it be?  Could it be?

VESTURE: The prescribed liturgical color for Lent is violet, and Lent's shade can be different from the violet of Advent.  Avoid gaudy purple catalog offerings with busy appliqué symbols.  These are distracting, and often not very good art.  Visual austerity, simplicity and plainness are the goals, whatever shade of purple is decided upon.  On Laetare Sunday a dusky old rose (not hot pink) may be used.  On Saint Joseph's Day and Annunciation Day, the Christmas whites could reappear, a visual signal of the season with which these solemnities are associated.  For Palm Sunday, use the same red vesture reserved for the feast of the Holy Cross, Good Friday and martyrs' days.  Do not use the Pentecost set, and of course, avoid any appliqu6 doves or flames.

The Sounds of Lent

As aural austerity and an aid to focusing on essentials, traditional Lenten liturgical usage restricts the use of instrumental music to only as needed to accompany the voices." If there are no preludes during Lent-except perhaps on the Fourth Sunday-the first piece the community hears and sings at Mass or the Hours must set the right tone.  Remember, however, that simplicity need not mean gloominess!  Remember, too, that the repertoire of refrains and hymnody for Lent is among the richest of the church.

CHANTS: The recent commercial rediscovery of Gregorian chant confirms the power of this venerable music to move hearts in every age.  Unaccompanied chant, especially in the form of congregational refrain and cantor's verses, is powerful and prayerful.  Because of the sense of solemnity and simplicity it communicates, and because the most ancient Roman tradition favors the approach, a chanted antiphon or refrain rather than the usual metrical hymn might be the best way to begin the Eucharist.  A perfect chant for this purpose is the traditional refrain to the Latin piece, "Attende, Domine." Found in several translations in all major hymnals ("Draw near, 0 Lord our God," "Hear us, almighty Lord," "Hear our entreaties, Lord," etc.), the chant is a brisk and bright Mode 5 melody, easy to learn and memorize.  There is nothing gloomy about this unadorned and straightforward piece, whose words and melody are perfectly matched.  And, like so many of these chants, it has staying power; it will bear the weight of five weeks' use.
The restoration of responsorial psalmody in the Roman rite gives us perhaps the principal repertoire of refrain-verse chant.  Learning a few of these settings will give the community material for the communion procession as well as celebrations of the Hours.  This year's proper Lenten psalms (91, 27, 103, 34, 126 and 22) contain a wide variety of themes: repentance, trust, and openness to God, protection, supplication and hope.  Refrain-style settings can be found in many hymnals.
Another option for refrain-style music at the Eucharist comes from Taiz6: "Adoramus Te Domine" (Music from Taizg, Volume I, GIA G2433).  Poetically gifted planners might write verses for each Sunday.  For instance, for the First Sunday: "In the desert of repentance, adoramus te Domine"; "In a land parched dry and lifeless, adoramus te Domine." On the Second Sunday: "On the mountain of your glory, adoramus te Domine." Creative verses for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays could draw on the rich scriptural images of water and thirst, darkness and light, death and life.

Hymns:  During the Eucharist, the preparation of the altar and gifts is a perfect time for the assembly to offer prayer in the form of a metrical hymn.  The preparation rite is a fitting setting for the meditative reflection a hymn can afford.
Many fine metrical hymns grace the Lenten season.  Our Latin tradition ought not to be neglected, and many such hymns are available in modern Catholic hymnals.   

The Rhythm of Lent

Through the prophet Joel, God summons people from all segments of the population: "The aged, the children, even infants at the breast ... the bridegroom ... the bride ... the priests." For centuries this proclamation has opened the celebration of Lent.  Taking the call and the season seriously might involve a number of decisions:

All organizations need to trim their calendars every year to the time and tone of the season.

Religious education needs to be attuned to the season as the church's living catechism, whose scope and sequence embrace a lifetime of learning and living.
Social events need to be planned carefully around the few days of festivity that ease Lenten intensity.  Over the centuries, almost every religious order and diocese has worked in at least one mid-Lent holiday.
Friday evening, as the culmination of a day of abstinence, might feature a meatless, fasting meal of soup and bread after the evening Mass and before Stations of the Cross.

A Time To ...FAST...PPRAY...GIVE ALMS...
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