Many strands woven together

Lent is a time of preparation during which we
deepen our faith in the God who saved the world.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, consulting editor Eureka Street and writer at Jesuit Social Services 

Ash Wednesday is a celebration of Christian communities. It also reflects concerns of the wider world. In Australia, it recalls the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires and reminds us of the consequences of global warming. In other nations it is associated with the destruction and grief of war. Our respective views of Ash Wednesday are shaped in part by the significant events of our world. 

This interweaving of faith and world events also marks the history of Lent, the liturgical season that Ash Wednesday introduces. It too contains many strands woven together over centuries. At its heart is the central Christian belief that God has forgiven our sins and given us life through the death and rising of Jesus. From the beginning of the Church, Christians expressed that conviction every time that they gathered to pray. They enacted it especially in the Eucharist.  

In the second century Christians dedicated a special feast to celebrate the dying and rising of Jesus. The Gospel accounts describe Jesus’ death and the establishment of the Eucharist as taking place during the Jewish feast of the Passover. This recalled the delivery of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In the Christian Scriptures this setting showed how Jesus’ death and rising fulfilled God’s promises to the Jewish people. It was natural for the early Christians to celebrate Jesus’ death and rising at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover. 

The feast was also associated with fasting, a regular part of Jewish and later of Christian devotion. Fasting marked seriousness. In the Old Testament fasting naturally accompanied prayer in desperate times. It was associated with the acknowledgment of sin and with communal renewal of faith. When people prayed for the forgiveness of sin, they also sometimes wore sackcloth and were stained with ashes as a symbol of sinfulness and of repentance. 

The importance of fasting for the early Christians led them to make it precede the celebration of the feast of Jesus’ saving death and rising. Its length varied in different churches, influenced by key stories of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The central Old Testament story of the freeing of the people of Israel from Egypt focused on their forty years spent wandering in the desert before entering the promised land.  

The Gospels mirror this story when they describe Jesus fasting and praying for forty days in the desert before beginning his public ministry. These stories encouraged Christians both to see the fast as a time of preparation for celebrating the feast of Jesus’ death and rising and to fix its time as forty days. Initially a period of five weeks from Sunday to Sunday, it was later expanded to forty days by marking its beginning on Wednesday. 

The liturgy of Lent was also affected by the way in which the Sacrament of Confession was celebrated in the early Church. It was then confined to the public confession of such serious and public sins as murder, adultery and denying the faith. People repenting of such sins dressed in sackcloth and ashes and were present only at part of the weekly Eucharist before being received back into the Church in the feast of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. When public confession became rare and was replaced by private confession, its memory was retained in sprinkling the congregation with ashes at the Wednesday beginning of Lent.   

The history of Ash Wednesday and Lent reveals the different strands in the liturgy of Lent and in our Christian lives. Its centre is the celebration of Jesus’ death and rising. Lent is a time of preparation. It involves associating ourselves with Jesus in his life, deepening our faith in the God who saved the world through his death, practising prayer and penance, and deepening our understanding of the Gospel and its riches. All these elements are coloured by the needs of the world and the preoccupations with fire, war and flood which we bring to the celebration of Lent.    

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.

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