Father Paul Kelly - St. Mary's Catholic Church
Today is Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. For many Christians, Lent is a special time of prayer and spiritual renewal, of fasting and almsgiving. The Old Testament prophet Joel encouraged people to return to the Lord “with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning.” (Jl 2:12) Although not all Christian denominations celebrate Lent, all would believe in the need for periodic spiritual renewal, that is, the need to conform one’s life more intensely to that of Jesus. Churches use different language to describe this renewal: revival, altar call, preaching crusade, retreat, confession of sin, being born again. Lent is a time that encourages this renewal through various penitential practices.
Historically, Lent started as a 40-day preparation before Easter. The 40 days commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, in fasting and prayer in his battle against temptation. If you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, you will get 46 days, but in earlier centuries the six Sundays of Lent did not count as fasting days.
In many languages, the word for Lent derives from the word 40. For example, in Spanish the word is “cuaresma” which is a derivative of the Spanish word for 40.
Lenten traditions can be very useful in helping people be more reflective of the life of Christ. One of my most memorable Lenten memories happened in Morelia, Mexico, on Good Friday. Morelia is in central Mexico and is about three times bigger than Des Moines. Every Good Friday, they have a procession through the streets depicting the funeral procession of Jesus. The procession is blocks long, and made up of representatives of churches and civic groups of the city. It is accompanied only by the cadence of drums, and the bier of Christ is carried at the end of the procession. Tens of thousands of spectators line the streets, often 10 deep on both sides, standing in respect in complete silence. It reminded me of President Kennedy’s funeral procession to Arlington cemetery in 1963. It was quite impactful witnessing a major city coming to a standstill in honor of the Lord’s death.
For all whose liturgical tradition includes Lent, may you find spiritual renewal in these upcoming 40 days.