Ash Wednesday, 2017, Lent has begun. Some people have not yet decided what they are doing for Lent. To people in this situation, I heard someone say, “Don’t worry about preparing for Lent because Lent is a preparation.” The implication being that one does not prepare for preparing. This way of looking at Lent – a preparation – is rather common today. The thought is that as we progress through Lent we are preparing for Easter. So ingrained has this thought become that some are genuinely puzzled by the idea of preparing for Lent. This was once expressed to me by a priest when I had mentioned to him that Lent is preceded by weeks of preparation (both liturgical and practical) in the Byzantine churches. It sounded strange to the priest that there would be a preparation for the preparation.
Is Lent a preparation? Is being a preparation the best way to think about Lent?
It’s not wrong to think about Lent as a preparation, but it is important to recognize that there are different kinds of preparing. Context is everything. Lent is a preparatory movement. It is a journey, and it is this which gives the context and proper understanding for Lent being preparatory.
The long arduous journey of Lent is not too dissimilar from the above picture. The women in this picture didn’t just begin her journey up the face of the mountain. No, her journey was preceded by a lot of preparation. She had to live a certain way, abstain from certain things. She does not become disciplined, strong, and persevering by climbing the mountain. She had to be all of that before she began her journey.
There is a significant difference between the journey of Lent and the journey of the woman above: she climbs the mountain because it is there to be climbed and she experiences a pleasure and satisfaction that she would not otherwise get, she takes the journey for its own sake. Not so with Lent. Let us imagine that this woman comes to the top of the mountain and takes in the grandeur and beauty of the view from the mountaintop. She then turns her back to the view and faces away from cliff’s edge. Before her lies a new country and new life, a country and life only accessible by climbing the mountain. The climb prepared and enabled her to live this new life well and to enter into it fully. But so did the preparation prior to the climb; in fact, the prior preparation was necessary.
So many people speak of Lent as being successful or unsuccessful. They express wanting a successful Lent, which is why it is typical for people to spend so much time weighing what they will or will not do. At the end of this season of Lent, there will be many people who will look back with dissatisfaction. Many will think they did not journey well, that they did not prepare well for new life in the Resurrection. Contra popular opinion, perhaps one of the reasons is because we no longer practice a preparation for the preparation in the Roman church.
It wasn’t always this way. Up until the new calendar of Bl. Paul VI was introduced, the Church celebrated pre-Lenten Sundays, the purpose of which was to prepare the faithful for the arduous journey of Lent. This is still done by those communities and orders who use the extraordinary calendar. The Byzantine churches also maintain their own particular tradition of pre-Lenten Sundays. One may reasonably ask, however, if the Church of Rome actually needs these pre-Lenten Sundays. After all, Lent isn’t exactly difficult in the Latin rite anymore. It doesn’t really seem like there is much to prepare for. Considering the current state of the practice of Lent in the West, could this point not only to our needing pre-Lenten Sundays again, but also to our needing a return to a more traditional practice of Lent? I am hopeful for the return of both in my lifetime.
A blessed Lent to you all. +