Question: Why not start Lent on the first Sunday of Lent? What is the reasoning…
Understanding the ‘front porch of Lent’
Before we moved to Huntington, Indiana, when I came to work at OSV, our family spent two decades in a traditional Latin Mass parish in Rockford, Illinois, administered by the Institute of Christ the King. Since Pope Benedict XVI restored the traditional Latin Mass as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite in 2007, more Catholics have had the opportunity to experience it, but the traditional liturgy is only one part of the Church’s patrimony that had faded away in the wake of the promulgation of the Mass of Pope St. Paul VI in 1969, and arguably not even the most important part.
For any Catholic who is familiar with only the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite (which is pretty much everyone below the age of 60, or perhaps a few years younger), experiencing the traditional liturgical calendar (observed, with mostly minor variations, in both West and East for over 1,500 years) opens up new dimensions of our faith. The observance of vigils (not Saturday evening Masses, but a day of penance and fasting before a great feast) and octaves (the extension of those feasts through a full eight days) helps break us out of a tendency to reduce our faith to one hour per week on Sunday (or Saturday night). The Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost, replaced in the current calendar with Ordinary Time, help to remind us that the incarnation of Christ and his revelation to the Gentiles at Epiphany, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, are not singular points in time but a continual revelation of the divine to the world.
The same is true of the pre-Lent period formerly known as Septuagesima, a Latin word that means “the 70th day.” Septuagesima Sunday is the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. It’s followed by Sexagemisa Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday, the 50th day before Easter (counting both Quinquagesima Sunday and Easter Sunday). The entire period is also known as “Shrovetide,” the period in which Catholics get shriven — that is, go to confession and receive their penance in preparation for Lent.
In the Eastern rites of the Church, this pre-Lent period is mirrored in Forgiveness Sunday, Meatfare Sunday (the last day on which Eastern Christians eat meat before the Lenten fast) and Cheesefare Sunday (the last day for dairy products and eggs). The point of these seasons is the same, East and West: to make us mindful that Lent is serious business, a time of spiritual sacrifice and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This “front porch of Lent,” as Father Brian A.T. Bovee, our pastor at St. Mary Oratory in Rockford called it, was meant to help ease Christians into the Lenten fast. It was a recognition that a change in heart rarely happens overnight, that we need time to set aside sinful habits so that we can embrace the spiritual discipline of Lent. And it was a reminder, too, that the fasting, abstinence, prayer and almsgiving of Lent should not be confined to those 40 days but should spill out into the rest of the liturgical year.
Ironically, the Church set aside this front porch of Lent 50 years ago, at the very time when life in the developed world began to get more and more complex and cluttered. If ever Christians needed a period of reflection before Lent in order to ensure that our Lenten journey is a fruitful one, it’s now.
Thankfully, we can still draw lessons from the accumulated wisdom of the past found in the traditional liturgical calendar, even if (as my family and I now do) we attend the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite. In these days before Ash Wednesday, we can spend some time in prayer and preparation, examining our consciences and identifying the sins that we most struggle with, and taking advantage of the Sacrament of Confession so that we can enter into Lent spiritually fortified and emerge at Easter spiritually renewed.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.