How does one discover the meaning of Lent? The parish bulletin may offer a description of the Lenten season, or we may hear a description offered by a church leader or teacher. But Lent, like every other liturgical season, has many layers of meanings, and so brief descriptions of Lent will always be inadequate and incomplete descriptions. Even the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, which presents only a scanty description of the Church’s liturgical seasons, barely acknowledges Lent’s existence.
The Church’s official norms for the liturgical year bring some focused precision to Lent’s meaning: “Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.” This description is concrete and to the point: Lent is about preparing to enter into the paschal mystery - the dying and rising of Jesus - which is celebrated most solemnly and fully on the great feast of Easter. Catechumens are preparing for baptism and the accompanying promises. Those who are baptized are preparing to renew those promises once again. Lent is a penitential season, for penitential practices help us to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for ongoing conversion.
Lent means even more, and to discover the full meaning of this season one must go to the original source, which are the liturgical texts themselves. It is the various prayers and texts of Lent, and the way they are celebrated, that tell us exactly what Lent means. This follows from an ancient liturgical principle that states that the way we worship is the truest expression of what we believe. In other words, if you want to know what a group of people believe, then watch closely how they worship, what they say and do when they pray together. Attention to how the liturgy is celebrated not only tells us what we, the Church, believe, but also nourishes and shapes our own personal spirituality.
Examples of the connection between liturgy and faith abound. An assembly of Lenten worshipers that appears to be gloomy while celebrating a liturgy that seems to be dull and lifeless has not noticed that the liturgical texts call Lent “a joyful season.” A community that places strong emphasis on the cross during the weeks of Lent has not noticed that the liturgical texts and readings do not really support that emphasis. Deliberate and prayerful focus on the cross of Christ comes at the end of Lent, with Holy Week. A parish whose Lenten liturgies are rich with overtones of Christian initiation understand that the Church firmly believes that Lent has to do with baptism and its implications. A parish that absconds with holy water and empties its baptismal font during Lent is also making a strong symbolic message, but it would be a message that is not supported by either the eucharistic liturgy or the initiation liturgies that are proper to the Lenten season.
One way to approach the liturgy, then, is to see it as an expression of our belief as a church. Participating fully and consciously in the liturgy means to listen carefully to the words of the prayers, songs and scriptural readings as well as to be carefully aware of the various liturgical actions and gestures, for these elements are expressions of what we believe. They make up the original catechism of our faith.