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Season of Lent is ‘pre-season training’

Friday 7 March 2014 | Published in Regional


Season of Lent is ‘pre-season training’

Sports followers, as you sit back to enjoy the current competitions beginning at this time of the year, like Super 15 Rugby, or the NRL series or the ANZ Trans Tasman Netball competition, just think of all the pre-season training that has gone in over the last couple of months to get the athletes into prime condition to participate.

As well as the normal physical training, there have been camps to bond the team; psychologists to ensure the correct mental attitude of the players; dieticians to ensure the body peaks at the correct time. Managers of players are involved to achieve a favourable financial return for the player. The discipline required of the players is demanding and if the acceptable code is transgressed then the player will hear pretty quickly about failing to give loyalty to the team and one’s team mates.

If sportsmen and women are prepared to make such great sacrifice to be the best in their field, just how much personal sacrifice are we, the professional followers of the Lord, prepared to make in our struggle with ourselves, with the powers of the spiritual world, and with the mystery of how we come to prefer God’s will to our own? In each of the gospels, Jesus teaches that those who want to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross, and that those who lose their life for his sake will find it: (Mt 16: 24 – 25; Mk 8:34 – 35; Luke 9 23 – 24; Jn 12:25)

For Christians we might say Lent is our time of pre-season training for the team of the Lord, as we are his ambassadors in the world. We began on Wednesday of this week our pre-training for the great feast of Easter. Around the various islands of the country on Wednesday it should have been easy to spot who was Catholic at least by looking at who had been marked with ashes on their foreheads.

What do ashes mean?

The liturgical use of ashes originates in Old Testament times. Ashes symbolise mourning, mortality and penance. For instance, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sack cloth and ashes when he heard the decree of King Ahasuerus, 485 - 464 BC of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job, whose story was written between the seventh and fifth centuries BC, repented in sackcloth and ashes.(Job 42:6.) Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel (550 BC) wrote: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. (Daniel 9:3)

In the fifth century BC, after Jonah’s preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah 3: 5 – 6).These Old Testament examples evidence both a recognized practice of using ashes and a common understanding of their symbolism.

Jesus himself also made reference to ashes: Referring to towns that refused to repent of sin although they had witnessed miracles and heard the good news, Our Lord said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago. (Matthew 11:21.)

Eventually, the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40-day preparation period for Easter starting in about the eighth century. It has been observed ever since to this day. The meaning was that when ashes were marked on the forehead it was to show that the person was prepared to repent of their sins during the Lenten fast.

In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on Palm Sunday the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”.

As we begin this holy season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes that we have received; we mourn and do penance for our sins. We again convert our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died and rose for our salvation. We renew the promise made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfilment in heaven.

Forty days for the season of Lent

The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten”, referring to the lengthening of the days in spring. This becomes a little confusing for us in the southern hemisphere as the current season is in fact autumn not spring and in the tropics we are not too conscious of the seasons anyway. However, our general knowledge of the seasons is enough to know that there is a time of the year after pruning away dead growth there will be new growth that will lead to plenty of fruit on the trees.

The penitential season of Lent is the period of forty days beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is a season of the Church year that remembers the forty days Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before he began his public ministry of preaching for repentance. Six Sundays are within the season, the last Passion Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week.

In the season of Lent Christians are called to imitate the forty days of prayer and fasting of Jesus. That it is forty days is significant. When God punished the sinfulness of mankind by the flood, the rain lasted forty days and forty nights. Moses led the Hebrews people out of bondage in Egypt, but they wandered forty years in the desert before reaching the promised land. Elijah fasted and sought God’s will on Mount Horeb for forty days. Jonah prophesised the destruction of Nineveh in forty days.

The value of Lent

Lent offers me the gift of 40 days to do 40 days of heavy training for the Lord. It is season to re-evaluate whether all that I do is focused on the ways of the Lord as expressed in the Gospel. Whatever is not focused on the gospel must be rooted out or turned away from. Like training for sport it needs a daily commitment or routine. And I must be constant at it. Even to stop for a few days shows quickly in unfitness and in the case of the spiritual journey we can find ourselves turning away from God or we can become indifferent to God.

I think it is timely to look at what it means to be indifferent. Many of us today have allowed ourselves to become blind to the situations of degradation and poverty that we encounter when walking or driving around our islands. How many of us passively accept certain types of behaviour that we once knew to be wrong. One might say it is a culture of silence. What is our reaction when we see the advertisement on television asking us to put a stop to violence against women! This appears to be a sad reality that surrounds us. Yet have we grown accustomed to violence, as if it were a normal part of our daily news. Worldwide we get used to seeing our brothers and sisters sleeping on streets, as they have no roof to shelter them. We are used to seeing refugees who search for freedom and dignity but are not received as they should be. So we get used to living in a society that claims to be able to do without God. We might say our hearts have become anaesthetised – have been put to sleep – and we no longer react.

Lent, then, is a season for putting in the hard training to change our route in life. For recovering our capacity to react when faced with the realities of evil in our own lives or those of others. Lent can be lived as a time of conversion, of renewal at a personal and community level by drawing closer to God through trusting in the Gospel.

Help me prepare my mind and heart, Lord, so that I may answer your invitation to new life with a resounding “Yes!”

Bishop Paul Donoghue

Catholic Church