It seems like it was just Christmas, but the penitential season of Lent is already upon us. I’ve often made the observation that one year is long enough so that most of us forget what life was like just twelve months before. In July, for example, people always seem to complain “how hot it is this summer” – as if last summer was any cooler. I’ve also found that most Catholics, even those who attend daily Mass, need to be reminded each year of the importance and spiritual richness of Lenten preparations for the events of holy Week, ending with the Feast of the Resurrection, celebrated on Easter Sunday.
The word “lent” comes from the Old English word for Spring. The number of days in the Lenten season is significant: Forty is the number of days of the Great Flood, the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert, the number of days Elias fasted, and the number of days Moses remained on Mount Sinai. Most importantly, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert in preparation for his own Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Lent is one of the oldest traditions in the Church, and the most beneficial way to celebrate this season has always been through means of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. For this reason Lent is known as a penitential season. It is a time that we devote to renewing our commitment to Jesus, to eliminating what is displeasing to God in our lives, to making reparation for the damage our sins have caused – to others, to ourselves, and to Jesus.
By especially focusing on performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, we conform our will to the will of God. This is one way in which to observe God’s rule of almsgiving during Lent. Almsgiving is a great form of charity, as are the Works of Mercy.
Fasting means taking only one full meal each day with the two other meals being very light, together which would not equal a full meal. The Church requires fasting, as well as abstinence from meat, on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) and Good Friday, though many Catholics exercise some form of fasting or abstinence – e.g., giving up sweets — on other days in Lent, excepting Sundays. Fasting is a spiritually-beneficial form of self-denial.
Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is traditionally celebrated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras celebrations, however, cannot be separated from the season which gives it its reason for existence: Lent. Mardi Gras parties are characterized by eating those things – meat, candy, etc. – from which Catholics fast during Lent. Another term, “carnival,” is also related to the Lenten season. It means “goodbye meat.” Carnivals have been celebrated for centuries in Europe, especially in Italy, during the week preceding the Lenten fast.
Fasting is not only an important aspect of Lent; it is also one of the greatest forms of penance, which includes the deliberate denial of legitimate pleasures and the peaceful acceptance of the sufferings, discomforts or frustrations of life.
Paramount in the life of a Christian is prayer. This is how we, as adopted sons and daughters, communicate with God directly – something that we should not only do every day, but something that we should ask God to help improve more and more each day. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity to renew our commitment to growing in holiness. As a part of every Catholic’s commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during the forty days of Lent, the Seven Penitential Psalms provide a great opportunity for growing in holiness. The following are the beginnings of these psalms. Why not make it a point of praying one of the psalms each day of the week during Lent? The prayers are powerful tools to awaken sorrow for sin.
O Lord, rebuke me not in they anger, nor chasten me in they wrath
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing…
Psalm 32 
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity…
Psalm 38 
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger, nor chasten me in they wrath!
For the arrows have sunk into me, and they hand has come down on me…
Psalm 51 
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to they abundant mercy blot out my transgressions…
Psalm 102 
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to thee!
Do not hide thy face from me in the day of my distress…
Psalm 130 
Out of the depths I cry unto thee O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!
Let they ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications…
Psalm 143 
Hear my prayers, O Lord; give ear to my supplications!
In thy faithfulness answer me in thy righteousness…
Spiritual Works of Mercy
1. To admonish the sinner
2. To counsel the ignorant
3. To counsel the doubtful
4. To console the sorrowful
5. To bear wrongs patiently
6. To forgive all injuries
7. To pray for the living and the dead
Corporal Works of Mercy
1. To feed the hungry
2. To give drink to the thirsty
3. To clothe the naked
4. To visit the imprisoned
5. To give shelter to the homeless
6. To visit the sick
7. To bury the dead