It’s an accident of the calendar that brings Lent to us so early this year. Easter, the greatest moveable feast of the Church, is always celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, and this year, all things align to make March 31st Easter Day. By the way, the earliest Easter can ever occur is March 22nd (which last happened in 1818 and won’t happen again until 2285). Still, only ten days out from its earliest possible date makes Easter early this year, and, consequently, Lent too has an early start. The origins of Lent (which probably comes from an old English word meaning “to lengthen”) go back to the 2nd century, though the season of fasting was not fixed at 40 days for another two centuries.But even before we reach Ash Wednesday, the “official” kickoff for the Lenten season, the Church calls us to remember that Lent is coming, with the three “Gesima” Sundays. The first of these, Septuagesima, is approximately seventy days before Easter; The next Sunday carries the title of Sexagesima, roughly ten days before Easter, and the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday is Quinquagesima, some fifty days before Easter. On these three Sundays the festal elements of Holy Communion such as the use of the Gloria in Excelsis and Alleluias are omitted, and so, even before we are reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we are, in effect, already in a penitential mode. So, from January 27th this year till March 31st, we start to focus on what we will give up…or take on…as the Lenten season nears.
When I was a child, it was already becoming common for those who were not members of strictly liturgical denominations to give up something for Lent. Coca Colas and chocolate always seemed to top the list for children then, though I’m not sure we really thought of our self-denial of these two delectable treats as having any real connection to taking an active part in Jesus’ own sufferings which were to lead ultimately to his crucifixion and death on Good Friday. I also remember clearly that our best laid plans to put Cokes and candy bars aside (except, of course, on the Sundays in Lent) usually suffered the same fate as our New Year’s resolutions, and we did indeed do (or eat or drink) those things which we ought not to have done (or eaten or drunk).
Somewhere along the way, someone introduced me to the concept of taking on, rather than giving up, during Lent. This could mean taking on prayer time or Bible study time as Lent moved nearer to its conclusion and Easter Day. Over the years, I’ve found that “taking on” has been a much more meaningful Lenten exercise for me. Whether it has been an intentional reading of the Bible or of some book of studies about the Bible, my taking on during Lent seems to have a further reaching effect in terms of my spiritual growth.
So, early on, even before Septuagesima Sunday gets here (on January 27th, by the way) and certainly before Ash Wednesday rolls around (on February 13), let me suggest that you consider taking something on this Lent…reading something you wouldn’t ordinarily read or praying more that you ordinarily would…so that, when Easter arrives this year, your time in the Lenten wilderness will have been spent giving yourself spiritual resources which will last beyond Lent’s Forty Days. In fact, they may even last for a lifetime,
In His love, and mine,