As we approach this holy season, we see Christ our Savior go before us and urge us onward – he who has suffered, bids that we might share in his suffering so as to share also in his glory. The Good Lord desires that we be purified and made wholly acceptable to him, but he will not do this without us, for he wills that we should be true participants in our own sanctification.
Consider the words of the holy Abbot, Prosper Gueranger: “The forty day’s fast, which we call Lent, is the Church’s preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our blessed Lord Himself sanctioned it by fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though he would not impose it on the world by an express commandment (which, in that case, could not have been open to the power of dispensation), yet he showed plainly enough, by His own example, that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the old Law, was to be also practiced by the children of the new.”
The necessity of a fast
Dom Gueranger refers us to the words of Pope Benedict XIV (in the Constitution Non ambigimus of 10 June 1745): “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.”
The Abbot continues: “More than a hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation he inveighed against has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form!
“And must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders? The sad predictions of Pope Benedict XIV are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking His justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges – civil disorder, or conquest. In our own country there is an inconsistence, which must strike every thinking mind: the observance of the Lord’s day, on the one side; the national inobservance of days of penance and fasting, on the other.
“But if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation, who knows but that the arm of God, which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing and not chastisement?”
The mystery of forty days
Whereas the English term “Lent” originally simply meant spring, the etymology of the word being simply Lenten or “long days;” Quadragesima is the Latin term for “Lent” and means, “Fortieth.” The forty days of Lent contain a great mystery, and so we turn again to Dom Gueranger:
“We may be sure that a season so sacred as this of Lent is rich in mysteries. The Church has made it a time of recollection and penance, in preparation for the greatest of all her feasts; she would, therefore, bring into it everything that could excite the faith of her children, and encourage them to go through the arduous work of atonement for their sins. During Septuagesima, we had the number [seventy], which reminds us of those seventy years of captivity in Babylon, after which God's chosen people, being purified from idolatry, was to return to Jerusalem and celebrate the Pasch. It is the number [forty] that the Church now brings before us: a number, as St. Jerome observes, which denotes punishment and affliction.
“Let us remember the forty days and forty nights of the deluge sent by God in His anger, when He repented that He had made man, and destroyed the whole human race with the exception of one family. Let us consider how the Hebrew people, in punishment for their ingratitude, wandered forty years in the desert, before they were permitted to enter the promised land. Let us listen to our God commanding the Prophet Ezechiel to lie forty days on his right side, as a figure of the siege which was to bring destruction on Jerusalem.
“There are two persons in the old Testament who represent the two manifestations of God: Moses, who typifies the Law; and Elias [i.e. Elijah], who is the figure of the Prophets. Both of these are permitted to approach God: the first on Sinai, the second on Horeb; but both of them have to prepare for the great favour by an expiatory fast of forty days.
“With these mysterious facts before us, we can understand why it is that the Son of God, having become Man for our salvation and wishing to subject Himself to the pain of fasting, chose the number of forty days. The institution of Lent is thus brought before us with everything that can impress the mind with its solemn character, and with its power of appeasing God and purifying our souls. Let us, therefore, look beyond the little world which surrounds us, and see how the whole Christian universe is, at this very time, offering this forty days' penance as a sacrifice of propitiation to the offended Majesty of God; and let us hope that, as in the case of the Ninivites, He will mercifully accept this year's offering of our atonement, and pardon us our sins.
“The number of our days of Lent is, then, a holy mystery.”