The most important time of the Church year for Christians is Easter and the build up to it which is known as Lent. The season of Lent lasts for the six-and-a-half weeks before Easter when Christians prepare to remember Jesus Christ’s suffering and death; and to celebrate his Resurrection, his raising to life from the dead. There is a proverb which says ‘no matter how far you have gone down the wrong road, turn back’. With Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, we can seek to ‘turn back’ to Christ, to God who loves us more than we can imagine. By various stages of Christian initiation, people who are going to be baptised at Easter are prepared during Lent, and those already baptised remember their Baptism, and the call to holiness that is implicit in it. All are invited to convert their hearts more completely to Christ and his Gospel message, through prayer, self-denial and charitable works. Lent is a time in the year to pause and think about how our words and actions affect our relationship with God and with others. The 40 days of Lent echo Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert.

Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are the special events of Holy Week. Through the sacred liturgy, through the prayers, readings and worship in church, the Easter story is brought alive for us and we can choose what our response to Christ’s sacrifice will be. We couldn’t actually be there during Christ’s suffering, but we can choose now how to live, how to pray, how to change our lives. Because we are human, body and soul, we need signs that we can see and hear and touch, to connect us with the events. If we just read the Easter story alone we would be missing out on something. We need to gather together and actually 'be there alongside' the Lord. When we approach the anniversary of a death of a loved one, it’s often the little details that bring back the memories – the smell of a hospital ward, the jumper we were wearing that day, the weather that time of year. During Holy Week, the events of Christ’s suffering and Resurrection are brought alive for us in a very human way through the details of the sacred liturgy. Together, as the Church: we hold palms, we see feet being washed, we touch a cross, we pray in a ‘garden’, we see a fire and the light of the Resurrection. We are reminded of the immense redeeming sacrifice Christ made for us when he bore our sins and died on the cross. The fast of Lent ends with the joy of the Easter Vigil Mass when Christ's Resurrection is celebrated and people are Baptised in some parishes.

Contemplating Christ’s suffering through our penance and through the sacred liturgy can move us to become more aware of others' sufferings, of those who may be going through their own ‘Holy Week’. Perhaps someone at our workplace is terribly alone, racked with fear in their own private Gethsemane. Someone in our home might have been wrongly judged, as Christ was wrongly judged. Maybe one of our friends is only just managing to get through the day, is carrying great burdens and is about to fall, as Christ fell under the weight of the cross. Who knows what the Lord could do through us if we have the sensitivity to notice, and the generosity of heart to respond. We can be like Peter in Gethsemane, and act primarily out of fear or our own needs alone; or we can be like Christ’s Mother Mary who stayed with her son, who showed ‘Com-passion’, which means ‘to suffer with’. She stood alongside him at the cross, not needing to say much, but a sign of burning love and faith in the middle of unbearable suffering. This Lent, we can choose once again, to turn back and renew our Baptismal commitment, with God’s grace and help.


Prayer, Fasting & Almsgiving

During Lent we can make time to renew our relationship with Christ. The traditional Lenten practices which can help us in this are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. St. Thérèse of Lisieux said that prayer is "a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy". Through prayer we give praise to God, say sorry for our mistakes, give thanks, and ask for God’s help. In prayer we open ourselves up to God’s gentle guidance. We are helped to see more clearly what we are called to be and to do for God, and to see the areas of our lives which may need changing. During Lent we can spend more time in personal prayer, read the Bible, and pray in Church with Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. We can also become closer to Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) and through the Mass.

Fasting is a Lenten practice, and is when we considerably reduce the amount of food that we eat. It has long been part of the Christian tradition that fasting, combined with prayer, can be spiritually helpful. How much we fast should be undertaken with discernment, and we should make sure that it does not intefere with our daily duties. When we go against our natural inclinations through fasting it can help us to become a bit more detached from our material needs and we become more aware of our dependence on God and of the needs of others. We read in the Bible that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before he started his public ministry (Matthew 4:1). Fasting is one form of penance, which can include other forms of self-denial. Through penance we express our sorrow for sin. Why should we want or need to do penance? One way of understanding it is to think about human relationships. If we really hurt someone we love, and they forgive us, there might be a feeling that things aren’t quite right until we have shown that we are really sorry by some sign - not because the other person demands it, but because the one who has done wrong wants to show love and sorrow. After apologies have been exchanged between a husband and wife, one might need to hold the other for a while, or make more effort to listen without interrupting. The action becomes a sign of the sorrow inside, a making up for the hurt caused. That is one aspect of the meaning of penance. We know that God forgives us when we are sorry, but we might do something extra as a sign of what’s going on inside our hearts. For example, we might give up something pleasurable during Lent. If this penance is united with Christ’s suffering and offered to God the Father it has an even deeper meaning, and we share in the redemptive work of Christ. We can offer our penance for special intentions such as to help those in need. Other forms of penance could be accepting an unavoidable difficulty, like offering up a little heartache, or it could be an act of charity like being kind when we might normally be irritable. As part of our penance during Lent, it is also helpful to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation (‘confession’), through which we experience God’s loving mercy and forgiveness.

In a statement by the Bishops of England and Wales (1985) we learn about the value of penance: “During his life on earth, not least at the beginning of his public ministry, Our Lord undertook voluntary penance. He invited his followers to do the same. The penance he invited would be a participation in his own suffering, an expression of interior conversion and a form of reparation for sin. It would be a personal sacrifice made out of love for God and our neighbour. It follows that if we are to be true, as Christians, to the spirit of Christ, we must practise some form of penance”. The Church sets aside certain penitential days and invites us to observe Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fast and abstinence. ”Fasting means that the amount of food we eat is considerably reduced. Abstinence means that we give up a particular kind of food or drink or form of amusement”. Fridays throughout Lent, and during the rest of the year are also days when we are encouraged to do some form of penance.

Almsgiving is an important Lenten practise and it means first of all giving money and support to those in need. It can include performing works of charity, this means helping people in various ways, especially caring for the poor, the sick or the lonely. Through almsgiving we imitate Christ, and try to live out the ‘Golden Rule’ which is “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).