Have you ever stopped to think that the word “Lent” is a bit of a strange word? It is one of those words that we simply know, but perhaps we’ve never thought about where it comes from or what it means. We simply know that it is the name that we give to this liturgical season, but have you ever thought about what the word means?
When we invoke the word “Lent” we usually think about things that are very austere. We think about the things that we give up during this season. For example, the British newspaper The Independent conducted a survey and these were the top things that people give up during Lent: chocolates and other sweets; social networking like facebook and twitter; alcohol, meat, coffee and carbonated drinks. These are the sacrifices that we make and are usually the way we define this season – as a time of fasting and prayer, a time of penance and sacrifice.
But this brings us back to this curious word, “Lent.” The word “Lent” does not mean sacrifice or penance or any of the austere terms we associate with the season. It means literally “springtime.” The word “Lent” comes to us from the Old English word “lencten” which is the root of words we know today like “lengthen.” It is a reference to springtime because it was used to describe the time of year when the days begin to get longer and brighter as the sunlight lengthens. So, Lent is about springtime and springtime is all about renewal, new beginnings and new life.
In his message for Lent this year, Pope Francis said, “Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts,” to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord.”
This image of springtime, of newness, of lengthening, is the appropriate one for us to embrace during Lent. We engage in our penitential practices, our sacrifices, not to punish ourselves for being far from God the rest of the year. We do these things so that they will renew us as the springtime renews our world. As the warmth of spring embraces our land, we welcome the warmth of the Holy Spirit to warm our hearts and rekindle in us the fire of God’s love. We do these things so that they might lengthen and increase the capacity of our hearts to love more, to be more kind to others, especially those we sometimes struggle with, to offer compassion, especially to the immigrant and refugee, the hungry and the homeless, to all those who are in need, to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Just like springtime, the season of Lent invites us to let light conquer our darkness, to let that light shine a bit more brightly as each day of our Lenten journey passes.
There’s a wonderful line towards the end of Dr. Suess’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It says, “The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!” My friends, as we embark on our annual Lenten pilgrimage, let us begin again. Let embrace the newness, the renewal, the lengthening and strengthening and increasing the capacity of our hearts that Lent offers each of us. Let us reach the joy of Easter with hearts that have grown by three so that the true meaning of our faith might be evident to all who see us.
Pope Francis concluded his Lenten mission by saying, “Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor. The Lord shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need. Let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the full the joy of Easter.”
The Holy Father also offered this advice for our Lenten fast. And so I’ll end by sharing it with you:
Fast from hurting words and say more kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with greater gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with peaceful patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with profound hope.
Fast from worries and trust in God’s plan.
Fast from complaints and contemplate holy simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be more prayerfully present.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with overwhelming joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled to one another.
Fast from words and be silent so you can hear the simple voice of God.
May the Lord give you peace.
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