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Discovering the True Meaning of Lent

By: Father Mike Esswein


I love spring. Of the four seasons of the year, spring is the most anticipated and longed-for by the world. After living more than four months in predominantly cold, gray days, and long, biting, dark nights of winter, there is arguably nothing more uplifting for the spirit than to see the return of spring budding forth from the sleeping, dead earth. As the days get warmer, brighter, and grow longer with daylight, we watch the sky above us become friendlier with a soft color blue and pockets of white clouds. Concurrently, the earth is slowly taken over by both the bright colors of green plants, bushes, trees, and the multi-colors of purple and white, yellow, orange, and red flowers that come shooting forth up from the earth. Now awakened, the world before us is transformed, made new, and becomes more alive in its fullness with each passing day. The earth stands in glory rejoicing in its creator and stands as a living testament to the existence of its author and artist who brought it all to life. Unlike the season of spring, however, I have not always loved Lent. Of the five liturgical seasons of the year, Lent is the one season that seems to deplete and limit life. It appears to ask us to give it omething that we possess, something we treasure and enjoy, something of our lives that we would just assume hold onto and keep for our own as part of our everyday life. If it were not for the encouragement given, or the expectation placed upon us to give away, or voluntarily offer up something of ourselves during this season, we would have no reason to do it. To simply give something up and drop it from daily practice and routine, even if only temporarily, can have the sense of being that of a tree or plant that lets go of its leaves with the arrival and onset of winter. The traditional practices of Lent, namely, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in addition to living the spirit of repentance during Lent, can make it as if Lent was an agent of winter, that further strips away from our lives more of those things that seem to serve us and keep us comfortable, especially when life is cold, dreary, and dark. The curious thing, however, is that the origins and meaning of the word Lent do not fit the description of winter but, instead, describe its opposite of the seasons. The word Lent is derived from Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning "Spring," and lenctentid, which literally means not only "Springtide" but also the word for "March," the month in which the majority of Lent falls. Spring is the season of new life and for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the month of March is when we begin to witness the world outside awaken from its winter and begins a transformation into the fullness of life. When considering, then, the origin and meaning of the very name of the season that is synonymous with sacrifice and “giving up” things, how is it that it is actually derived from a word that is about gaining and becoming full of life? What we are to discover and find in our experience of Lent is the mysterious, hidden truth, that in ‘giving up things’ one becomes more alive, and through sacrifice, one receives more in life itself. What we are to discover in our experience of Lent is the mysterio


us, hidden truth that is revealed in Jesus’ cross, death, and resurrection. What we are to understand, is that in ‘giving up things’ one becomes more alive, and through sacrifice, one receives more in life itself.

When it’s time to enter the season of Lent, in order to experience a season of spring that is transforming and of new life, it may simply come down to how I choose my Lenten practices. If my choices for prayer, fasting, and giving alms are made with little thought so that they become no more than just things added to my list of ‘to dos’, or my list of things I must go without for six weeks, Lent then only adds to an experience of a cold, gray


winter. If, however, I take time to choose a couple of practices that support one another throughout the six weeks of Lent, I will more readily open myself up to the possibility of knowing God’s transforming grace and the hidden truth of receiving more in life, by holding onto less. An example of choosing two practices that can support and build upon each other would include the Bible and TV. The Lenten prayer would be reading the Bible, or listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year while taking notes. The Lenten fast would be, no TV at the time of one of your regular watched shows. By purposefully praying and reading one’s Lenten prayer at the time when one has chosen to fast from their TV show, each practice would support the other. In essence, striving to faithfully live both Lenten practices together strengthens one’s commitment to living both. The familiar experience of losing energy for staying committed to prayer more often comes with the practice of random prayer time. In setting the time for reading the Bible or listening to the Bible in a Year podcast, to the predetermined TV show time under the Lenten fast, the temptation to quit the practice is limited. Additionally, having the practice of prayer during the time of the TV show serves as an aide in keeping one from just replacing the TV time with more time at the computer or work. Choosing two practices to work in conjunction with each other for Lent can be one way to better open ourselves to the grace of the season. If we enter the season with purpose and are opened by the grace of the practices we choose, we can look to be awakened and transformed, made new, and more alive in our Lord. It can be our hope to stand with the rest of the earth in its glory on Easter day rejoicing in our creator and living even more as a testament to the existence of our Lord and God. It can be our hope to stand with the rest of the earth in its glory on Easter day, rejoicing in our Creator and Redeemer, living even more as a testament to the existence of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. About the Author: Father Michael Esswein is the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Webster Groves and one of the five pastors whose parishes share Holy Cross Academy grade school. With gratitude to Fr. Michael for allowing FAITH Alive in the Home to reprint his article.

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