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ON LENT - Jesuits of North-West Africa Province | Society of Jesus

Gratitude Magazine March 2015 Edition

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-Gabriel Ujah Ejembi, SJ


Lent 1For many people, Lent is the season that they feel scrupulously challenged to be holy.  The Church, on her part, emphasizes on holiness through repentance, conversion and works of mercy in Lent.  Whatever it is, there is something special about the season of Lent. It is the season that most Catholics come to Church to pray at least more than just attending Sunday Mass.

Unlike Christmas, which has a fixed date, the beginning of Lent, that is Ash Wednesday, is decided by the date chosen for Easter which is customarily between the 22nd of March and 25th of April. The appearance of the full moon in the Spring helps in this determination.  In fact, Lent comes from the old English word for Spring, lencten “springtime, spring”. The fact that the beginning of Lent is dependent on the date of Easter is symbolic because the real meaning of Lent is captured in the joy of Easter.  Easter gives meaning to the activities of Lent.

It is generally held by some theologians that Lent began with the Apostles themselves or immediately in the post-apostolic period.  Nonetheless, the history of Lent takes us back to the time of the Church’s Fathers, especially in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200 AD) when a period of three days-triduum is designated to prepare to celebrate the new Exodus of the new people of the Covenant- Christians. Also, during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the possibility of a 40 days period of fasting was discussed and approved.  The specific idea is to announce the fidelity of God to his never changing love and promises; that love that brought the people of Israel (people of the Old Covenant) from the slavery in Egypt to the joy of freedom in God in the Promised Land. In this great Exodus, God came down through the different signs and wonders to guarantee the liberation of His people.  God humbled himself to negotiate with an earthly king for the liberation of His people.  It is like God saying “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1, 18).  This great Exodus occupies a central place in Judaism because it is not only the movement from Egypt to the Promised Land but it holds a rich content of God’s love.  The Exodus is simply God reassuring His people of His Love through different activities that show that God is a Jealous God.

In constituting a new people, God humbled himself again, but now in Jesus, to lead us through a New and Everlasting Exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of the men and women of God.  This freedom purchased us for God as His offspring thus restoring us to our beauty as a people made for God. It is therefore the celebration of this Exodus that defines the central place of the Season of Lent. Lent prepares the faithful to celebrate the project that brought God from heaven to earth in flesh and blood – that project that culminated with Easter, the feast per excellence of the people of the New Exodus.

Lent is therefore, above all, a time to get in touch with the real impact of Easter on our lives.  We behold the glorified body of Christ in Easter.  Our bodies too will be glorified someday, that is, free from the slavery of sin and death.  It is natural then for early Christians to adopt different ways of grieving to chastise and discipline our earthly body in anticipation of that full victory that God offers.  We grieve too for our weaknesses in the face of God’s immense love revealed in an eloquent way in the passion of His son who, though sinless, became sin for our sake.  This grieve is symbolized by, first, the ash that we receive on Ash Wednesday which represents sorrow for our sins, and second, by our unrelenting effort to make the will of the sacrificed Lamb ours.  Lent is accurately an occasion to ponder on our sinfulness.  

Lent 2

Before Jesus began his public ministry, he chose the desert experience with God, a time to be alone. It was a time to seek the face of God by subjecting the body to some disciplines in order to strengthen the willing spirit within us. Jesus remained in the desert for forty (40) days.  The Church has adopted this same digit and thus the length of Lent is forty days (40) excluding all the Sundays of Lent.  The digit 40 is significant because during Noah’s time, the rain that destroyed and purged the world took 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7, 4); Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24, 18); the Israelites will march into Freedom from the slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land having been fed with Manna for 40 yrs (Exodus 16, 35); Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert (Matthew 4, 2), etc.  The digit 40 is symbolic of a time of great and profound preparation and testing like in the case of Jesus, a time of great intimacy with God like that of Moses, a time of purging and cleansing like that of the journey to the promised Land and the destruction of the world during Noah’s era (this is also symbolic of judgment).  The digit 40 is also emblematic of a period of probation and trial.  

In the context of Lent, the number 40 represents a period defined by the spiritual exercises of Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting.  In other words, a period of holistic self and communal evaluation using the parameters of Prayer (my relation to God), Almsgiving (my relation to others) and Fasting (my relation to myself).  These three parameters are not isolated and exclusive of one another but are intertwined and interrelated.  This rightly puts Lent as a period of universal formation in the Church such that new Godly attitudes and habits and spiritual activities are cultivated. The expectation is that there should be heightened practice of spiritual activities in such a way that it becomes a way of life that is continued and sustained after the Season of Lent.  Some people observe Lent as a period of suspending some inhumane or sinful habits and then withdrawing the suspension after Lent.  This should not be encouraged. The sacrifices we make in Lent should be a way of “giving up something” in order to be “given over to something” that aligns with God’s will. This latter justifies charity and almsgiving.  For example, one reduces extravagant spending (giving up something) so that he or she could do more charity (given over to something).

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday – a day in which the church makes a universal call to repentance through the symbolic distribution of ashes as she announces a fact of human physical life “Dust we are and onto dust we shall return”. Adhering to this truth, Catholics are called to fill themselves with graces, to let God fill their emptiness, to repent and return to God.  Our repentance leads to God filling us with more of Himself. For this reason, the spiritual exercises (fast, almsgiving and prayer) during Lent have the intention of receiving and not just giving. We may possibly add that a well lived Lent should lead us to honestly exclaim with Gregory, the theologian, who said “Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.”

Fr. Gabriel Ujah Ejembi, S.J is currenly the assistant parish priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Benin City, Edo State. 


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