It is a traditional doctrine
of Christian spirituality that a constituent part of repentance, of turning away
from sin and back to God, includes some form of penance, without which the
Christian is unlikely to remain on the narrow path and be saved (Jer. 18:11,
25:5; Ez. 18:30, 33:11-15; Joel 2:12; Mt. 3:2; Mt. 4:17; Acts 2:38).
Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk.
5:35). The general law of penance, therefore, is part of the law of God for
The Church has specified certain forms of penance, both to ensure that the Catholic will do something, as required by divine law, while making it easy for Catholics to fulfill the obligation. Thus, the 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics [Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices as specified by the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches].
Canon 1250 All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.
Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Canon 1252 All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
Can. 1253 It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
The Church, therefore, has two forms of official penitential practices - three if the Eucharistic fast before Communion is included.
Abstinence The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Moral theologians have traditionally considered this also to forbid soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatin which do not have any meat taste.
On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops conference obtained the permission of the Holy See for Catholics in the US to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing. Since this was not stated as binding under pain of sin, not to do so on a single occasion would not in itself be sinful. However, since penance is a divine command, the general refusal to do penance is certainly gravely sinful. For most people the easiest way to consistently fulfill this command is the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year which are not liturgical solemnities. When solemnities, such as the Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints etc. fall on a Friday, we neither abstain or fast.
During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere, and it is sinful not to observe this discipline without a serious reason (physical labor, pregnancy, sickness etc.).
Fasting The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.
Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment, manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.
Aside from these minimum penitential requirements Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times. It could be modeled after abstinence and fasting. A person could, for example, multiply the number of days they abstain. Some people give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives). Some religious orders, as a penance, never eat meat. Similarly, one could multiply the number of days that one fasted. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast. This fast could be the same as the Church's law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter, even bread and water. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys - candy, soft drinks, smoking, that cocktail before supper, and so on. This is left to the individual.
One final consideration.
Before all else we are obliged to perform the duties of our state in life. When
considering stricter practices than the norm, it is prudent to discuss the
matter with one's confessor or director. Any deprivation that would seriously
hinder us in carrying out our work, as students, employees or parents would be
contrary to the will of God.
The traditional purpose of
Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to
the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent was also traditionally the term
used to describe the period leading up to Christmas before the term of advent
was officially recognised.
Lent is a forty-day liturgical season that initiates the most sacred part of the Christian year. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Great Vigil of Easter. Sundays are not included in the forty-day count because every Sunday is a joyful celebration of our Lord's resurrection. During Lent, Christians meditate on the great paschal mystery -- the salvation God won for us sinners by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
WHAT DOES THE WORD "LENT" MEAN?
The word Lent is apparently derived from the Old English lencten, which means "lengthen." It refers to the lengthening of the daylight hours that occurs in the northern hemisphere as spring approaches. It is in this period of transition from late winter to early spring that the season of Lent falls.
WHY DOES LENT LAST FORTY DAYS?
The duration of the season of Lent is based on the ancient church custom of requiring catechumens to undergo a forty-day period of doctrinal instruction and fasting before being baptized on the evening before Easter. This probationary period was called the quarantine (from the Latin word for forty). The number forty occurs frequently in both testaments of the Bible. It signifies the time that is required for discipline, testing, and separation prior to achieving a goal or new beginning. For example, we read in the Old Testament that it rained forty days and nights during the Great Flood (Genesis 7:12), Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18), the people of Israel were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34), Elijah journeyed for forty days before he reached Mount Horeb and had a vision of God (1 Kings 19:8-9), and the inhabitants of Nineveh fasted and repented for forty days in response to the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:4-5). The outstanding instances of the number forty in the New Testament are the account of Christ's ordeal in the desert fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13) and His various appearances to the apostles and others between His resurrection and ascension during which He strengthened their faith and prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3).
HOW DOES WORSHIP CHANGE DURING LENT?
Since Lent is a season of penitence, reflection, and prayer, worship during this time is solemn and restrained. The somber colors of purple and black replace the brighter white and green of the Epiphany season. Flowers are generally removed from the sanctuary. Songs of praise like the Gloria in Excelsis ("Glory in the highest") and expressions of joy like Alleluia ("Praise the Lord") are removed from the liturgy until Easter. Many churches hold special mid-week worship services (Wednesday evenings at Saint Paul's) and offer devotional activities that help their members concentrate on the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving (gifts of mercy, or "charity" as it is usually called), and prayer. The practice of these disciplines goes back to the early days of the church and are meant to help Christians recall and be thankful for our Lord's atoning death on the cross.
WHAT IS ASH WEDNESDAY?
Ash Wednesday (from the Latin Dies Cinerum, meaning "Day of Ashes") is the first day of Lent. On this day, Christians focus intensely on their utter and complete sinfulness and the necessity of Christ's suffering and death to earn their salvation. Ashes are referred to many times in the Old Testament as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:6; and Jeremiah 6:26). Many churches use ashes during Ash Wednesday worship as part of a rite called the Imposition of Ashes. According to this custom, ashes (traditionally made by burning palm fronds used on Palm Sunday of the previous year) are mixed with a small amount of olive oil and applied to the forehead of each worshipper. The smudge mark made by the dirty ashes is a powerful reminder that we are going to die because death is the penalty for our depraved natures and sins of thought, word, and deed. The fact that the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross directs us to Jesus Christ as the only way to forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in heaven.
WHAT IS HOLY WEEK?
The last week of Lent is known as Holy Week. During this holiest time of the liturgical year, the church commemorates the final week of our Lord's life. The high points of this week are Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.
WHAT IS THE LITURGICAL COLOR FOR LENT?
Purple, the color of royalty and repentance is the traditional color for the season of Lent. Black, the somber color of mourning and sorrow for sin, is reserved for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. For the period from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, some churches use scarlet, an intense variant of purple and red that symbolizes the life-giving blood of Christ.
Pursuant to Canon 1253, days of fasting and abstinence are set by the national Episcopal conference. On days of fasting, one eats only one full meal, but may eat two smaller meals as necessary to keep up one's strength. The two small meals together must sum to less than the one full meal. Parallel to the fasting laws are the laws of abstinence. These bind those over the age of fourteen. On days of abstinence, the person must not eat meat or poultry. According to canon law, all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday and several other days are days of abstinence, though in most countries, the strict requirements of abstinence have been limited by the bishops (in accordance with Canon 1253) to the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. On other abstinence days, the faithful are invited to perform some other act of penance. A custom that developed later was to also give up something a person "enjoyed" receiving or doing for the duration of Lent. Although it is not required or part of any rule, many Christians today will also choose to give up something during the Lenten period.
There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour). Today, some people give up a vice of theirs, add something that will bring them closer to God, and often give the time or money spent doing that to charitable purposes or organizations.
In many liturgical Christian denominations, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday form the Easter Triduum. Lent is a season of grief that necessarily ends with a great celebration of Easter. It is known in Eastern Orthodox circles as the season of "Bright Sadness." It is a season of sorrowful reflection which is punctuated by breaks in the fast on Sundays.
In the Roman Catholic Mass, Lutheran Divine Service, and Anglican Eucharist, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is not sung during the Lenten season, disappearing on Ash Wednesday and not returning until the moment of the Resurrection during the Easter Vigil. On major feast days, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is recited, but this in no way diminishes the penitential character of the season; it simply reflects the joyful character of the Mass of the day in question. It is also used in the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Likewise, the Alleluia is not sung during Lent; it is replaced before the Gospel reading by a seasonal acclamation. In the pre-1970 form of the Roman Rite omission of the Alleluia begins with Septuagesima. During the lenten season, some Catholic Churches remove the holy water at the entrances of their churches. Instead of water, stones are place in.
The last two weeks of
Lent are known as Passiontide. It begins on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which in
the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal is called the First Sunday in Passiontide
and in earlier editions Passion Sunday. All statues (and in England paintings as
well) in the church were traditionally veiled in violet, and according to the
rubrics should continue to be so. This was seen to be in accordance with the
Gospel of that Sunday (John 8:46-59), in which Jesus “hid himself” from the
people. The veils were removed at the singing of the Gloria during the Easter
Vigil. Following Vatican II, and in the Reformed Kalendar of 1970, the name
Passiontide was formally dropped, although the last two weeks are markedly
different from the rest of the season. The tradition of veiling images is left
to the decision of a country's conference of
"The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 264-265). By the middle of the fifth century, the Church had taken a similar approach to preparing for Advent, then known as "St. Martin's Lent." Much of what follows may also be profitably applied to Advent.
Since Lent is itself a season of preparation, it may seem like overkill to have to prepare for Lent. Yet, how will we take full advantage of the opportunity of Lent if we wait until the last minute to decide how to keep it? Both the Eastern and Western Churches have long traditions of a pre-Lenten season that is designed to set the stage for keeping a productive and holy Lent. In Orthodoxy, the Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment lead up to Forgiveness Sunday, the day before Lent. In the West, for many centuries we observed Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, a kind of liturgical count-down of the Sundays nearest the 70, 60, and 50 day marks before Easter, with the actual 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before the Feast.
We hasten to point out that we do not believe that the elimination of the formal pre-Lenten season in the West has been a bad thing in itself. It has allowed the reshaping of Epiphanytide as a more intentionally focused season. This is particularly evident in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and in the Revised Common Lectionary in America, where the season is clearly defined at its beginning and end with the major manifestations of our Lord, the Visit of the Magi on Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord on the First Sunday, and the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday. Not only does this give Epihanytide a greater integrity as a season in itself, it provides a clearer line of thematic material in the larger movement from Christmas to Easter, with the Transfiguration serving as the turning point, both temporally and theologically, from the Christmas cycle to the Paschal cycle.
Nevertheless, all of this leaves us with a major bump in the road from the point of view of personal devotion. With the celebration of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the faithful are raised to the rarified height of Tabor, and then, just three days later, on Ash Wednesday, they are plunged into sackcloth and ashes. It may be that this transition is too sudden. And it is certainly the case that it fails to provide any formal or liturgical impetus to have a Lenten rule in place and ready to go on the very first day of Lent.
Lent is sometimes referred to as a pilgrimage or a journey. Very few people set out on any kind of journey without packing a bag. What are the things that we need to include in our Lenten luggage? The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent in the 1979 Prayer Book provides a packing list. The list may not be exhaustive, but it is a good start:
prayer, fasting, and self-denial
reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
Another way of describing this luggage is to call it a rule of life. Many Christians have a formal rule of life which they observe throughout the year. Their Lenten rule will usually add a few seasonal exercises. For those who do not already have a formal, year-round rule, Lent is a good opportunity to begin one. The purpose of a rule of life is not to set impossibly high standards that might be admirable but are not practical. A rule of life must fit the person. A new Christian or someone new to the whole idea of a rule of life will have a more modest rule than an older, more proficient Christian. So, the elements in the invitation above need to be tailored to the maturity of the individual. (A spiritual companion or director can be very helpful here.) A runner might hope someday to run a marathon, but it may take years of training at shorter distances to build the stamina and strength to achieve that goal. Holiness of life is the goal of every Christian, but progress towards that goal is a lifelong task, not the accomplishment of a single Lent. At the same time, the basics of a Lenten rule can set a pattern for a lifetime of spiritual growth
The Seven Penitential Psalms
These seven psalms have served as a special source of prayer and reflection during Lent, for centuries. The tone of their honest pleading is compelling and invites us to turn to our Lord with the same candor and desire. Our struggles, our sins, our "enemies" - and the ways we describe them - may be different, but these psalms can draw us into coming before our God, as sinners, with real needs. They can help us come to know God's love and mercy.
The Seven Penitential
From A Catholic Prayer Book
Psalm 6: Domine, ne in furore
Lord, do not reprove me in your anger: punish me not in your rage. Have mercy on me, Lord, I have no strength; Lord, heal me, my body is racked; my soul is racked with pain. But you, a Lord, how long? Return, Lord, rescue my soul. Save me in your merciful love, for in death no one remembers you; from the grave, who can give you praise? I am exhausted with my groaning; every night I drench my pillow with tears. My eye wastes away from grief; I have grown old surrounded by my foes. Leave me, all you who do evil; for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord will accept my prayer. All my foes will retire in confusion, foiled and suddenly confounded.
Psalm 32: Beati quorum
Happy the man whose offense is forgiven, whose sin is remitted. a happy the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no guile. I kept it secret and my frame was wasted. I groaned all the day long, for night and day your hand was heavy upon me. Indeed, my strength was dried up as by the summer's heal. But now I have acknowledged my sins; my guilt I did not hide. I said: "I will confess my offense to the Lord." And you, Lord, have forgiven the guilt of my sin. So let every good man pray to you in the time of need. The floods of water may reach high but him they shall not reach. You are my hiding place, a Lord; you save me from distress. You surround me with cries of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will give you counsel with my eye upon you. Be not like the horse and mule, unintelligent, needing bridle and bit, else they will not approach you. Many sorrows has the wicked but he who trusts in the Lord, loving mercy surrounds him. Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord, exult, you just! a come, ring out your joy, all you upright of heart.
Psalm 38: Domine, ne in furore
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; do not punish me, Lord in your rage. Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. Through your anger all my body is sick: through my sin, there is no health in my limbs. My guilt towers higher than my head; it is a weight too heavy to bear. My wounds are foul and festering, the result of my own folly. I am bowed and brought to my knees. I go mourning all the day long. All my frame bums with fever; all my body is sick. Spent and utterly crushed, I cry aloud in anguish of heart. O Lord, you know all my longing: my groans are not hidden from you. My heart throbs, my strength is spent; the very light has gone from my eyes. My friends avoid me like a leper; those closest to me stand afar off. Those who plot against my life lay snares; those who seek my ruin speak of harm, planning treachery all the day long. But I am like the deaf who cannot hear, like the dumb unable to speak. I am like a man who hears nothing in whose mouth is no defense. I count on you, O Lord: it is you, Lord God, who will answer. I pray: "Do not let them mock me, those who triumph if my foot should slip." For I am on the point of falling and my pain is always before me. I confess that I am guilty and my sin fills me with dismay. My wanton enemies are numberless and my lying foes are many. They repay me evil for good and attack me for seeking what is right. O Lord, do not forsake me! My God, do not stay afar off! Make haste and come to my help, O Lord, my God, my savior!
Psalm 51: Miserere
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. My offenses truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done. That you may be justified when you give sentence and be without reproach when you judge. O see, in guilt was I born, a sinner was I conceived. Indeed you love truth in the heart; then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom. a purify me, then I shall be clean; O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear rejoicing and gladness, that the bones you have crushed may revive. From my sins turn away your face and blot out all my guilt. A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit. Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervor sustain me, that I may teach transgressors your ways and sinners may return to you. O rescue me, God, my helper, and my tongue shall ring out your goodness. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise. For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse; my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn. In your goodness, show favor to Zion: rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, holocausts offered on your altar. Note: Lawful sacrifice, holocausts interpret to Sacrifices of righteousness.
Psalm 102: Domine, exaudi
O Lord, listen to my prayer and let my cry for help reach you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Turn your ear towards me and answer me quickly when I call. For my days are vanishing like smoke, my bones bum away like a fire. My heart is withered like the grass. I forget to eat my bread. I cry with all my strength and my skin clings to my bones. I have become like a pelican in the wilderness, like an owl in desolate places. I lie awake and I moan like some lonely bird on a roof. All the day long my foes revile me; those who hate me use my name as a curse. The bread I eat is ashes; my drink is mingled with tears. In your anger, Lord, and your fury you have lifted me up and thrown me down. My days are like a passing shadow and I wither away like the grass.
But you, O Lord, will endure for ever and your name from age to age. You will arise and have mercy on Zion: for this is the time to have mercy; yes, the time appointed has come, for your servants love her very stones, are moved with pity even for her dust. The nations shall fear the name of the Lord and all the earth's kings your glory, when the Lord shall build up Zion again and appear in all his glory. Then he will turn to the prayers of the helpless; he will not despise their prayers. Let this be written for ages to come that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord; for the Lord leaned down from his sanctuary on high. He looked down from heaven to the earth that he might hear the groans of the prisoners and free those condemned to die. The sons of your servants shall dwell untroubled, and their race shall endure before you that the name of the Lord may be proclaimed in Zion and his praise in the heart of Jerusalem, when peoples and kingdoms are gathered together to pay their homage to the Lord.
He has broken my strength in mid-course; he has shortened the days of my life. I say to God: "Do not take me away before my days are complete, you, whose days last from age to age. Long ago you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish but you will remain. They will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like clothes that are changed. But you neither change, nor have an end."
Psalm 130: De profundis
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness: for this we revere you. My soul is waiting for the Lord; I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than the watchman for daybreak. Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption; Israel indeed he will redeem from all its iniquity.
Psalm 143, 1-11: Domine, exaudi
Lord, listen to my prayer;
turn your ear to my appeal. You are faithful, you are just; give answer. Do not
call your servant to judgment, for no one is just in your sight. The enemy
pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in
darkness like the dead, long forgotten. Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is
numb within me. I remember the days that are past: I ponder all your works. I
muse on what your hand has wrought and to you I stretch out my hands. Like a
parched land my soul thirsts for you. Lord, make haste and answer; for my spirit
fails within me. Do not hide your face lest I become like those in the grave. In
the morning let me know your love, for I put my trust in you. Make me know the
way I should walk: to you I lift up my soul. Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies; I
have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will for you, O Lord, are my
God. Let your good spirit guide me in ways that are level and smooth. For your
name's sake, Lord, save my life; in your justice save my soul from
Symbols in Our Home
We need to choose to let our homes be a place full of the holy – things that help raise our minds and hearts to God. Our world is full of so many images that lure our minds and hearts elsewhere. Here are some symbols that will carry the ongoing meaning we give them, for us and for our families and loved ones.
We probably all have a crucifix in our home. If not, Lent might be a wonderful time to buy one and place it in a central place. Even a child’s drawing of Jesus’ death for us can be a powerful, stirring reminder of God’s love.
A simple bowl of water, in a central place, can be transformed into an ongoing reminder of our journey to the font of baptism for the renewal of commitment and life in Christ. Perhaps we can pray over it. “Lord, may this water remind us of our baptism and be a blessing for our home, where our dying and rising in you is lived each day. Bless us, as we sign ourselves with it each day.”
Perhaps a bowl of sand can help us remember our journey. God led the people in their journey in the desert. Jesus himself reenacted that journey to face his own temptations. The desert can be a place of retreat, where there is a freedom from distractions. It can be a good place to be led and to face our temptations.
Imagine having a candle in a central place in our home. Imagine praying over it together as we begin Lent. “Lord thank you for the gift of your Light in the midst of all darkness. Let this candle be a symbol of our faith in your presence among us.” And imagine if we light this candle whenever we feel tempted away from the Light of Jesus, when we are experiencing tensions in our home, whenever we need special graces. Imagine how powerful experiencing the lighting of the New Fire will be at the Easter Vigil.
Perhaps we have Baptismal candles that were given to us or our children at Baptism. It might be very meaningful to bring them out and lay them near our central candle. We can remember the words that were spoken when we received this candle: "Receive the Light of Christ. ... Keep this flame burning brightly."
Perhaps we have the white baptismal garments that have been used in our family for baptism. These could be taken out. We can remember the words, `See in the white garments you wear, the outward sign of your Christian dignity. Bring this garment unstained to the joys of everlasting life.` We can let it remind us of our white garment, when we see the newly baptized come out of the font of baptism, and be given their new white garments. It is a symbol of the priesthood in Jesus that we all share.
The Word is so important for us during Lent. Perhaps the prominent presence of a Bible in our home can represent for us our desire for God’s Word in our lives. Imagine the experience that could be ours if - when we feel a new inspiration or a softening of our heart, or just a sense of God’s love – we pick up that Bible and simply, reverently kiss it.
Are there other symbols
which make our particular journey full of meaning and faith?
Our Service for and with the Poor
This doesn’t need to feel out
of our reach. In so many reflective ways, we can make choices to act in
solidarity with those for whom we desire to have a special care, and from whom
we know we will learn much about faith and trust in God.
Soup kitchen - food pantry, So many people depend upon our charity, in societies that can’t yet provide for an equal distribution of our resources, and offer means for a growth in dignity and justice in attaining them. Imagine if we take some time to research how the poorest of the poor are cared for in our area. We may want to practice our generosity in preparing food, serving it ourselves or sharing what we have with food pantries that offer daily survival for those in need. Imagine if we felt inspired to go deeper. What graces might come to us if we were to go to a meal program and sit with and visit the poor? What fear would we need to overcome? What might we learn if we ask how they are getting along? Or ask them about their faith? Perhaps we might grow in courage to bring our children or friends. How might we return to our lives with greater freedom and trust?
What else might we do,
that fits with our circumstances and the needs around me and in the world?
Spring Cleaning for Freedom
So many of us have accumulated much more than we need. It bursts from our closets, overflows our shelves and clutters our lives. Lent might be a wonderful time to deliberately release ourselves from the many “things” we own by cleaning out our closets and simplifying our lives in a prayerful and intentional way. On one level, this is ridding ourselves of things we don't need, or things that we hated to part with except that they are so "out of style." Certainly, many of us have many things that are "extra" or "unneeded" for us, but could be wonderful for those who can't afford to buy clothes at a store.
Another level of this journey into personal freedom is to ask ourselves how much I really do need. How many sweaters do I want to choose to have? How many jackets, sport shirts, dresses, shoes? How much jewelry? How much sporting equipment? How much electronic equipment? How many sets of silverware or dishes? How much of so many things we have in our lives?
We can get as serious and go as deeply into this as we desire to find fruit. This is not "should I get rid of what I don't need?" This is different, more faith-filled and takes us into giving up 'good' stuff -- perhaps stuff we are attached to -- because we want to experience the exercise of freedom. We do this because we sense that we are not free in some areas that are tremendously important for us, important for our salvation, and growing in freedom before the things of our lives can be a great grace. This freedom, too, will place us in greater solidarity with those who find such great happiness and joy in trusting in God, while having so much less than we imagine we could survive on.
What else might we do,
that fits with my circumstances and the needs around us and in the world?
Family Conversion - Relationship Conversion
Lent can be a good time to
reflect on the people who mean the most to us and the relationships we hold most
dear. For those of us who live in industrialized countries, it can be
jarring to realize that our time together as a family might amount to no more
than a few minutes a day. Our lives are independent as we scatter in
different directions each day for work, school or childcare.
This season of reflection and renewal might be an appropriate time to pray about our family lives and how we can be more thoughtful and prayerful about Lent as a family.
Perhaps we could hold a family meeting over dinner or some other relaxed place. We could discuss Lent and the symbols of the season using the resources here. We might want to talk about how our faith life is not a journey we make alone, but one we are in as a community, as a family.
One Lenten family practice might include a daily act of love for our family. Can we look around and see some small thing that needs to be done to make our lives together better? Is there laundry to sort or dishes to be washed? Is there a floor that needs sweeping or a room that needs dusting? Just one effort by each of us each day can make a dramatic difference in sharing the workload in the family. The grace we are reaching for goes beyond getting the garbage taken out, for example. We know it is a grace when my experience of taking the garbage out, feels to me like an act of love, an act of solidarity as a family. Perhaps the simplest way to prepare for this grace is to pray:
Dear Lord, may this simple, ordinary sacrifice of my time for the sake of those I love, draw us closer together as a family whose hearts you are drawing to yourself in the togetherness of our family love.
One of the real graces
of Lent has to do with forgiveness and reconciliation – mercy and healing.
This is never simply a matter between Jesus and me. It always has
something to do with my family and with my relationships – how we are with each
other. What in us needs mercy and healing? What patterns that we have need
our reflections and common family choices and actions this Lent?
Realigning Our Priorities
All of us have, at one time or
another, named certain things as our "priorities." From time to time, when
we become aware of our not doing something that is really important, we say, "I
have to make that a priority." Lent is an important time to do a
top-to-bottom review of what we value and what we actually do, in our every day
lives. Whenever we do this, we always discover that something needs
re-aligning. We discover that there are values we hold, commitments we've
made, growth we desire, that simply don't make it on the list of our "actual
priorities" - that is, the things that take the "first place" in our
lives. For example, I might say, "My family is my first priority!"
My family might say otherwise. I might say, "My faith is among my top
priorities." But, an honest self-examination may show otherwise. I
may say, I hear the words of Jesus that we will be judged really on only one
thing: how we care for "the least" of his sister and brothers. I may only
occasionally even notice that feeding, clothing, caring for or defending the
marginal never makes it to my priority list.
A thorough review of what is most important to us, and what seems to be important to us by virtue of what we actually do, is prime Lenten activity. If what we are hoping to do during Lent is to grow in personal freedom, based upon our growing sense of God's love for us, and our clearer vision of who we are, and our deepening desire to be more closely aligned with the heart of Jesus, then we will want to do this personal review very carefully. How else might we ever hope to get to a heroic, courageous, self-sacrificing service of others? What chance will care of the poor ever have of making it into our priorities? How will we ever be able to break old self-defeating habits and secure the establishment of new ones that help us be who we want to actually be?
I can start a variety of ways, but it would be wonderful if we could start with prayer. We can ask God - in our own words, and with desire - for the grace to do this review with real honesty, and with a real desire to grow in freedom and integrity.
am I? What is my purpose?
Then, I might want to spend a few days reflecting upon - in the background all day long - who I am, and what my purpose is. Then, I might spend a few more days reflecting upon who I say Jesus is, and what this means for me. It doesn't make sense to start with a review of what I really value, if I haven't first examined if my values "fit" the truth of who I am and who I am called to be.
Naming my values
Then, I can name what is most important to me. A piece of paper would be very helpful, so that I can put it into words and keep "editing" or refining the words as I go along. I will try to be as explicit as possible. Instead of saying, "My kids." I might spell out the values that are important to me in my saying that my kids are a value, e.g., "It is extremely important to me that I be there for and with my kids when they are encountering key growth moments in their lives, in so many areas - homework time, for reflection time, in relationship struggles, in wins and losses, in relaxing and having fun." We want to "open up" our values, as we name them. What does it mean to say I value "my faith" or "my relationship with God" or "service to others"?
Spelling out the values in actions
Then, with each value, I will list what that value will mean in concrete behavior. For example, I may have written a value statement that is quite wonderful, "My relationship with my wife is the most important relationship of my life: I need her for my faith, and for my everyday strength; I want to be there for her, supporting her faith, affirming her, and caring for her in all her needs; I want to spend the rest of my life growing together in service of others." That would be an incredibly important set of things to say about what my wife means to me. The real work, the real "choosing" happens when I spell that out in real actions that will give life to that valuing. The true test of a value's importance to me is how it survives, in competition with other important values, in the contest for time in my everyday life. I can tell what I really value, by what I really do. When I feel like I'm not doing what I really value, then I need to realign my priorities.
Don't forget to be complete
One of the serious "mistakes" in trying to realign priorities is that I can easily overlook "operational priorities" that I might not be too aware of, or that I might not be to proud of. If I'm going to "re-arrange" what is important to me - moving some things higher up on the list and others things lower down - then I need a complete list. There probably are things in my life that I just do regularly - I read the paper every morning at 6 a.m.; we go out to dinner every Saturday night; I have "season tickets" to something. I need to name these. If "watching TV" is a big priority in my life (something I spend 4, 6, 10, 20 or more hours a week doing), or if I have to watch something every week, I should name it. If escaping into sexual fantasy is something I do quite regularly, I should name it. Smoking, drinking, surfing the net, collecting little ceramic things, fixing up the basement, are things that can become pretty engaging, are often time and resource consuming, and should be named.
Establishing new priorities
When all of my priorities are lined up like this, I am then ready to re-value them. We don't want to rush this part of the process. Perhaps we will want to discuss this review with some of the people who are intimately involved with the choices I will be making. And I will want to assess if I have the freedom and grace I need to make the decisions I want to make and to begin to establish new patterns. That is precisely when it is important to turn to God with my fresh desires (trusting that they have been inspired by God's initiative already) and ask what I need.
The next step is to name what my "first priorities" are. This may sound ironic: how many "first" priorities can I have? In this sense, my first priorities are those that I will always do. In any competition for time, these choices will win out. That is what defines them as my priorities. My relationship with God, with my family, with my faith community, with my friends, with others in need, might be in this category. This is what I do not want to neglect any more.
Then, it is very important to name the second level of priorities. These are very important, and I don't want to neglect them either, but I want to make sure to distinguish them from my top priorities. I may, for example, have "my work" priorities here. They are very important to me, but I want to realign my priorities so that my first ones actually come first.
Then, I will clearly put a lot
of other stuff in the third level of priorities. Now this process gets to
be purifying. I may discover that I spend more money on smoking or
recreation or knick knacks than I give in support of my faith community or the
poor. I may realize that I spend more time watching TV than I do
praying. I may find it difficult to surrender something I "always do" for
something I now want to make sure I always do. Since this is where we may
need the most grace, this is a very important time to turn to the Lord and ask
for help and freedom. Dying to self, in order to be who I am called to be
for and with others, is not easy at first. With practice, it can become a
source of great joy and fulfillment. And, with God's grace, it will be
part of my contribution to the Reign of God's coming closer and closer.
in a review time
Because this realignment will take practice, it will involve some back sliding at times. In times of crisis or under pressure, we all regress back to behaviors we were most comfortable with. Our new priorities can vanish. That is why it is critical to keep reviewing how we are doing. During this Lenten time, we may build in a daily examination of how we are doing. With time, we may want to develop the practice of reviewing our day to day fidelity to our priorities every Sunday morning, or some other time during the week. With each examination, we need to give thanks to God, for the grace that has inspired and sustained this life-giving realignment of our priorities.
One of the real challenges
that we too often find in our contemporary, busy lives is finding time to be
together as a family. It is especially difficult to find opportunities to
pray together. And, if prayer, other than going to church on Sunday,
hasn't been a family tradition, it can seem very "unnatural" to introduce it as
something we might do together as family. Here are a few
possibilities - call them dreams - for ways we might pray as a family, during
Lent, or at any time of the year.
Prayer Before Meals
One of the most natural times to pray, is as we sit down to eat. We can begin, or "break the ice," by simply saying, Let's pray or Let's just pause for a minute to give thanks. One of the challenges of doing this prayer well, is that we don't want our food to get cold. This leads us to do the prayer quickly. Brief prayer doesn't have to be without substance or power. And, it doesn't always have to be after the food is on the table. For a change of pattern, we could gather everyone to the table for prayer, and then bring the food to the table.
begin with a prayer of thanksgiving:
Lord, we thank you for the
blessings of this day
and for this time together as family.
We thank you
for this wonderful meal
and for this hour we can share it.
We always begin with thanksgiving. The "reasons" we give for our gratitude can be very specific, and draw us into this prayer from our "real" place we are in this day. So, we can say that we are grateful for this Lenten journey, which offers us renewal and prepares us to celebrate Easter with greater freedom. We might say, We thank you for being with us each of us today, while we were apart, and for being with us tonight. Perhaps we will thank God for some special grace that has occurred today. We may want to take time to let each person name one or two things for which he or she is grateful.
We then turn to God and ask for what we need.
Help us to remember those who
have so much less than we do.
Bless us as a family.
Help us to grow in love and care for each other.
We ask you to comfort and give
strength and peace
to those who are sick or struggling in any way.
This, too, should be very specific to us as a family. We all have family and friends who are sick or in need. Perhaps there is a special challenge or difficulty that one of us is going through. We can turn to God with our concerns about a crisis that is going on in our city or country or some part of the world. With practice, this brief moment will help us be mindful of our desire to turn to God in all our needs. It will help us grow in a sense of compassion and care for so many people. Again, we may want to take time to let each person name one or two prayers of petition.
We can conclude with, We ask this through Christ our Lord or with a traditional table prayer, which we could say together.
Bless us, O Lord, and these
which we are about to receive
from your bounty
through Christ our Lord.
These options are from the Book of Common Prayer.
Give us grateful hearts, our Father, for all thy mercies,
and make us mindful of the needs of others;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, thy gifts to
our use and us to thy service;
in Jesus Christ holy name we pray. Amen.
Blessed are you, O Lord God,
King of the Universe,
for you give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For these and all his
God's holy Name be blessed and praised;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Praying at Other Times
There are many other times or occasions when we can develop the habit of praying together. These examples might inspire our own creative or spontaneous prayer.
It can be quite transformative of our family bonds, in faith, to pause very briefly to pray together. This might be a spontaneous prayer, while we are laying in bed with our spouse, Lord, be with us today, or Dear, I ask the Lord to give you strength and peace today at your meeting. Perhaps we are rushing around each other in the kitchen, grabbing breakfast. It can be wonderful to pause to pray, simply asking the Lord to be with each of us in what we are about to do.
So many of us spend a fair amount of time in the car, often with other members of our family. These can be nice times to begin or end the trip, with a very brief prayer. Bless our shopping tonight. Help us be grateful for the gifts you give us. May this food/these clothes help us be mindful of those who have so much less than we do. Or, Bless Ann at practice today. Give her gratitude and delight in the gifts you give her. Help her to do her best, to encourage others, and to learn what you offer her today. Or, Lord, as we go to Bill and Ann's for dinner, we thank you for our friendship with them, and we ask you to bless this night with all the graces you might offer us in the care we have for one another; we ask this in Jesus' name. Or, Lord, as we drive to church, we thank you for our faith and for this chance to be together with our parish community; please allow us to hear your Word, to give you thanks and praise, and to be nourished for the mission you give us this week.
Often the weekend offers some special moments together that can be wonderful times of prayer.
We can say brief prayers like this at so many special times. It can be very important to pray together, while cleaning up, in preparation for guests coming for dinner, or an overnight slumber party. We might share the responsibility for "designing" the family prayer for special occasions: Birthdays, Anniversaries, the beginning and ending of a school year, when one of us is beginning any new endeavor. We may want to add some special prayer time if one of us is experiencing a personally anxious time or crisis. For example, if one of us has to wait for an appointment for a biopsy, and then wait for the results, we might place a special candle on our dining room table, and light it each evening as we remember that person in our prayer.
It can be so easy to add gestures that bring powerful prayer to our family life. One of the simplest and most natural is to trace a cross on a loved one's forehead. It can speak volumes to a young child, if his or her parents were to give them this gesture of love and prayer. This ritual can be done everyday, when we part for the day, or at bed time, or it can be reserved for special prayers of blessing before a big event. And, it can be a powerful, faith-filled ritual for a husband and wife, as part of an every day pattern, or at times of great intimacy, to touch each other in blessing.
Any of the "symbols" that we refer to in our page, "Symbols in Our Home" can be a source of family ritual. Perhaps we have our own family gesture or ritual that speaks of our faith or draws us into prayer.
Praying for Each Other:
The most important part of family prayer is perhaps the easiest to overlook - how we hold each other up to the Lord. Even when we are not physically together, as a praying family, we want to pray for each other. In reality this means that I have a pattern of talking with the Lord about the people I love most dearly, each and every day. They become part of my very relationship with God. Whether we are a married couple with young children, or I am a single parent, or if my children have grown up and begun lives of their own, this aspect of family prayer is so important. My spouse and I may not share our faith; perhaps my spouse doesn't pray at all; but I can talk with the Lord about my spouse every day - sometimes asking for help, sometimes just expressing my gratitude, sometimes begging for the gift of faith for my spouse.
Lord bless our praying, in the community of our family, these days of
The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;
The sinful child of man may live in gladness;
Man forfeited his life and is acquitted;
God is committed!
Penitential Prayer of St.
Ambrose of Milan
O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ's sake, Amen
St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)
Penitential Prayer of St.
The house of my soul is narrow;
enlarge it that you may enter in.
It is ruinous, O repair it!
It displeases Your sight.
I confess it, I know.
But who shall cleanse it,
to whom shall I cry but to you?
Cleanse me from my secret faults, O Lord,
and spare Your servant from strange sins.
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)
A Prayer of
I am guilty of sin
I confess my sins before you
and I am sorry for them.
Your promises are just;
therefore I trust that you will forgive my sins
and cleanse me from every stain of sin.
Jesus himself is the propitiation
for my sins and the sin of the whole world.
I put my hope in his atonement.
May my sins be forgiven through His name
and in His blood may my soul be made clean.
O my all-merciful God and Lord,
Jesus Christ, full of pity:
Through Your great love You came down
and became incarnate in order to save everyone.
O Savior, I ask You to save me by Your grace!
If You save anyone because of their works,
that would not be grace but only reward of duty,
but You are compassionate and full of mercy!
You said, O my Christ,
"Whoever believes in Me shall live and never die."
If then, faith in You saves the lost, then save me,
O my God and Creator, for I believe.
Let faith and not my unworthy works be counted to me, O my God,
for You will find no works which could account me righteous.
O Lord, from now on let me love You as intensely as I have loved sin,
and work for You as hard as I once worked for the evil one.
I promise that I will work to do Your will,
my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life and forever more.
Prayer of St. John Chrysostom