The penitential season of Lent is the period of forty week-days beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is a season of the Church year that commemorates 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. Holy Thursday begins the Triduum (three days) before Easter day, which includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
The Church has devoted a period of time to prayer and fasting as a preparation for the liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Christ and the celebrations of the feast of the Resurrection, Easter Day, since very early times. In 604 Pope Gregory I defined Lent as "The spiritual tithing of the year", a time of solemn spiritual and physical preparation for our own acceptance of salvation through Christ's sacrifice. (Ordinary tithing meant to give a tenth part a tithe of one's goods to God. Lent's forty days represents about a tenth of the year.)
The word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "lencten", referring to the lengthening of days in the Spring. Lent, of course, is an English word. In Latin, still the official language of the the Catholic Church, the entire season is known as Quadrigesima, or "forty".
The season of Lent calls Christians to imitate the forty days of prayer and fasting of Jesus. The period of 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 Hebrew 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 prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in forty days.
The Code of Canon Law states that Fridays throughout the year and in the time of Lent are penitential days for the entire Church. Although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction, in the Church, between fast (limiting food to one full meal a day, with two smaller meals allowed) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat.) Abstinence from meat on Fridays as the universal form of penance on all Fridays is no longer mandatory. We may choose another way of observing the Church's requirement for acts of penance on Fridays, but we are not to neglect it, either.
Since the change in the abstinence rules, some people have become confused about the requirement to observe penitential days. As a result, the discipline of fasting (or abstaining from meat) or any form of regular penance has all but disappeared. Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) has sharply declined, as well.
Both fast and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For the record, rules of the Church in the United States about fasting and abstinence in effect since 1966 state that:
"Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole." (ref. Canons 1249-1253, Code of Canon Law)
(See also Fast and Abstinence page for more information on the practice.)
Fasting and abstinence, which foster self-discipline and self-denial and other beneficial spiritual exercises, are strongly encouraged as voluntary practices at any time of the year. But it will be the responsibility of families, as the "domestic Church", to foster this spiritually energizing practice, not only during the required Lenten days, but at other times as well. To fast willingly, in reparation for our own sins and for others, can transform not only our own lives, but the life and vitality of the larger community.
As Pope Leo I stressed in the 5th century, the purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity that joins us to Christ an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice. Fasting can heighten our understanding of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church, and of our total dependence on His love and mercy.
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