The Weeks Before Lent
As the calendar turns from January to February, the prospect of Ash Wednesday comes more into focus since this year, what is technically known as the Feria Quarta Cinerum, or the Fourth Day of Ashes, will be observed on Wednesday, February 22nd. Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, wrote a magnum opus entitled The Liturgical Year. In the chapter labeled as “The History of Septuagesima,” he said this about pre-Lent, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.” Though pre-Lent was eliminated from the liturgical calendar in 1969, prior to that time the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday were loosely identified as the Septuagesima (70th), Sexagesima (60th) and Quinquagesima (50th) Sunday before Easter. The titles of the first two Sundays are approximations, while Quinquagesima Sunday—the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday—is exactly fifty days before Easter.
Despite their liturgical removal, the practice of preparing for Lent remains something worthwhile. The three traditional pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. It is also a season marked by addition or subtraction – doing more spiritual activities like going to Mass daily or subtraction, namely, giving up something that is personally important as a reminder of the self-denial aspect of this holy season. Thus, while the titles of the Sundays before Lent may have been consigned to liturgical history, now is the time to consider what your Lent will look like.
Before too long, from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, the Church will confront us with the dark reality of our own sinfulness though coupled with the reassuring reality of God’s mercy. These two realities, sin and mercy, must never be detached from one another. The forty days of Lent is the ideal time to strengthen that conviction about the salvific relationship that human sin and divine mercy should have with one other. As you sense the sting of your weaknesses and sinfulness, accompanied with sin’s antecedents along with its consequences as well as their causes and effects, never forget to consider God’s mercy, which is readily available to sinners, and, in fact, is super-abundant. Avoid getting stuck with only one of those twin-poles while ignoring the other. Sinfulness must be framed within the context of mercy. And God’s mercy should be regarded in the context of the unavoidable nature of sinfulness. From there springs forth the unshakable conviction that no matter what sins we have committed, no matter how serious they are, there is always hope. God’s mercy is never lacking and His forgiveness is readily available and guaranteed in sacramental Confession.
Light vs. Darkness—Let there be light!
These three weeks, leading up to Ash Wednesday, highlight the inevitability of the struggle between light vs. darkness. In order to do so, as happens in the first readings that are selected from the Book of Genesis, the Old Testament helps to understand the biblical theology of the light/darkness. In order to understand more of the glory of Christ in the work of redemption, we must first go back to the creation account of Genesis where “the earth was a formless waste and darkness covered the abyss…” Into that darkness, God declared, “Let there be light.” Yet, it wasn’t a blinding light at first; no, the light developed progressively brighter. In fact, “the two great lights” only were created on the fourth day – it waxed and grew.
Throughout the seven days of creation, God’s creative work is concluded by this refrain, “…evening came and morning followed” – the first day, the second day, etc., giving precedence to evening instead of the what would seem the more natural expression “morning and then evening”. Most likely, the sequence “evening came and morning followed” reflects the Jewish reckoning of time – the following day begins after nightfall on the night before. On a more profound level, this unexpected sequence reflects how God Himself works. The eternal Father is always facing toward the light, so that His back is turned against the evening. Such a biblical pattern of creation is an even infinitely more accurate description of the inner life of faith. When God enlightens the human heart and mind, it constitutes the twilight of darkness and, while ability to spiritually see is enhanced, we only see dimly. Then, as God’s grace grows, the inner light is deepened and, one day, will reach the splendor of noonday. The growth in grace entails going from evening to morning.