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Lenten Customs and Observances

1. The Great Fast

Of all the observances of Lent, the chief among these is the Great Fast. So intertwined are the two, in fact, that
the Fathers of the Church sometimes used the terms interchangeably. This solemn obligation is believed to be of
Apostolic origin and takes its precedent, as we mentioned above, from the examples of Moses, Elias, and Jesus
Christ. The Great Fast used to consist of both abstinence and fasting. Christians were expected to abstain not
only from flesh meat, but from all things that come from flesh, e.g. milk, cheese, eggs, and butter. Eastern rite
Christians still observe this practice, while the Western church gradually kept only abstinence from meat
(reference to all lacticinia, or "milk foods," was dropped in the 1919 Roman Code of Canon Law). Both East
and West, however, agree on the importance of fasting. Originally this meant taking only one meal a day,
though the practice was modified over the centuries. The preconciliar practice in the U.S. was for all able-
bodied Catholics ages 21 to 60 to have one full meal a day which could include meat, and two meatless meals
which together could not equal one full meal. Snacking between meals was prohibited, though drinking was not.
Ash Wednesday, Fridays and the Ember Days were days of total abstinence from meat, while Sundays were
completely exempted from all fasting and abstaining.

The idea behind the Great Fast -- as well as other periods of fasting -- is that by weakening the body it is made
more obedient to the soul, thereby liberating the soul to contemplate higher things. St. Augustine gives perhaps
the best example: if you have a particularly high-spirited horse, you train it at the times when it is too weak to
revolt. It is our opinion that this venerable practice should still be taken seriously. Even though current
ecclesiastical law has reduced the fast from forty days to two and eliminated the thirty-three days of partial
abstinence, this does not mean that observing the Great Fast is not salubrious or praiseworthy. This said,
however, the Great Fast should not be adhered to legalistically. In the words of St. John Chrysostom: "If your
body is not strong enough to continue fasting all day, no wise man will reprove you; for we serve a gentle and
merciful Lord who expects nothing of us beyond our strength."

2. Other Forms of Asceticism

Since Lent recapitulates time spent in the desert, other forms of asceticism have accrued to its observance.
Unessential travel and diversion are discouraged. In former times, certain forms of entertainment, such as live
theatre and secular music, were banned, as was the holding of court. Weddings were also forbidden in the early
Church; even after this changed, the Solemn Nuptial Blessing could not be given during a Lenten wedding.
Finally, married couples were once admonished to abstain from conjugal relations during this time (as they
were admonished to do during all solemn fasts and feasts). Again, the principle is the same: withdrawal from
the preoccupations of the flesh in order to focus on the spirit.

3. Good Works

Lent is traditionally considered a particularly good time for performing corporal works of mercy (e.g.,
almsgiving, peacemaking, etc.). The importance of supplementing ascetical denial with active virtues is
underscored in the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent (Luke 11.14-28), in which a man who has had a demon
exorcized from him later becomes repossessed by the demon and seven other unclean spirits. Christ's point
seems to be that holy practices such as fasting do indeed remove bad things from one's soul, but this is
ultimately to no avail if the soul is not then filled with good things. This understanding is also operative in the
Collect for the First Sunday of Lent:
O God, who by the yearly Lenten observance dost purify Thy Church, grant to Thy household
that what they strive to obtain from Thee by abstinence, they may achieve by good works.

4. Mourning& Veiling

Akin to the asceticism of Lent is its mournful tone. The Church is traditionally draped in purple or black, its
organ silenced, and its altar bereft of any flowers. At home medieval Catholics would avoid frivolity or hilarity,
and would wear black during either Holy Week or Good Friday.

There is a special mourning custom that also begins on Passion Sunday and ends when the Gloria is sung
during the Easter Vigil Mass: covering all sacred images (crucifixes, statues, etc.) with purple cloth in both
church and home. This might seem counterintuitive, since one would expect to gaze at a crucifix more during
the season when the Passion is being considered. Yet the Roman rite teaches by absence as well as by presence.
In an odd way, being denied access to the sacred images alerts you to their presence all the more, in the same
way that not having the sacrifice of the Mass on the one day you would expect it the most, i.e., Good Friday,
makes one all the more aware of the Sacrifice that took place on that day. Covering sacred images also adds
immensely to the sense of sorrow and compunction that should naturally accompany this somber period.

5. Confession and Holy Communion

One of the Precepts of the Church is to receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion at least once
a year, during Lent or Paschaltide. As mentioned above, Catholics once dedicated the three days prior to Lent as
a special time to go to confession. Shrovetide arose from the desire to prepare for the holy asceticism of the
Great Fast. Once Lent begins, however, confession should still be sought out: since Lent is a time for frequent
and frank examinations of conscience, confession is a sacrament that should be liberally taken advantage of
during this time.

6. Stations of the Cross

Though technically only the last fourteen days of Lent explicitly consider the sufferings of our Lord, the
Stations of the Cross (a.k.a. the Way of the Cross) have long been a popular Lenten devotion for any or all of
the forty days (though they tend to be done on Fridays). These fourteen scenes from the via dolorosa, the
sorrowful path that Christ took while carrying His cross to Golgotha, help direct one's heart to the mysterium
fidei of our Lord's selfless sacrifice.
7. Mid-Lent Customs

Mid-Lent, the week from the Wednesday before to the Wednesday after Laetare Sunday, is a note of joy
within the context of sorrow. The perfect symbol of this complex emotion is the rose vestments worn on
Laetare Sunday instead of penitential purple or exultent white. Rose stands somewhere in between, as a sort of
joyous variation of purple. The last day of Mid-Lent is when catechumens would learn the Apostles' Creed for
the first time; the days leading up to that great revelation were thus for them a cause for gladness. This spirit
eventually permeated to the rest of the community as "a measure of consoling relaxation... so that the faithful
might not break down under the severe strains of the Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a
refreshed and easier heart" (Pope Innocent III (d. 1216)).

Mid-Lent customs predominantly involve pre-Christian celebrations concerning the "burial" of winter, where
flower decorations and the like betoken the joyous end of the cold and dark. There are also customs involving
either matchmaking or announcing the engagements of young couples. In either case, a joyous meal is
celebrated during this time.

In England Laetare Sunday came to be known as "Mothering" Sunday because it was the day that apprentices
and students were released from their duties to visit their mother church, i.e., the church in which they had been
baptized and brought up. This custom tied into the theme of Mother Jerusalem

8. Passiontide Customs

The main custom for Passiontide, as mentioned above, is the veiling of all sacred images in home and church
with purple cloth. This custom originated in ancient times, when the images in the papal chapel of the Vatican
were covered after the words of the Passion Sunday Gospel, "Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple" (Jn
8.59), were pronounced.

9. Holy Week Customs

Spring Cleaning. Just as the Hebrews cleaned and swept the whole house in preparation for the Pasch
(Passover), so too is there an ancient custom in Christianity that the first three weekdays of Holy Week be a
time for the year's most thorough cleaning. Everything is to be scrubbed and polished, and all work is to be
completed by Wednesday evening (in time for Tenebrae).

Attending Tenebrae. Tenebrae consists of the divine office of Matins and Lauds for Maundy Thursday. It is
generally held on the night of "Spy Wednesday" of Holy Week, so-called because it is believed to be the night
on which Judas Iscariot betrayed our Lord. The service thus explores the nature of Judas' betrayal, the mental
anguish of our suffering Lord, and the desecration of what was once holy and beautiful. Its ceremonies include
the use of a "hearse," a triangular candelabrum that holds fifteen candles which are successively existinguished
during the liturgy until the entire church is enveloped in darkness. Only one candle remains lit at the end, which
is hidden by the Epistle side of the altar before the Miserere is chanted. The service concludes with a banging
noise, followed by silence. The extinction of the fourteen candles calls to mind the fourteen holy men
mentioned in the Bible who, from the foundation of the world to the very threshold of Christ's coming, were
slain by their own wicked brethren. The hiding of the fifteenth candle, on the other hand, signifies the murder
and resurrection of Christ Himself, while the banging noise commemorates the confusion of nature when its
Creator died (Mt. 27.51).

Attending Maundy Thursday Mass. There were originally three separate Masses for Maundy Thursday. The
first, no longer in use, is the Mass of Remission, whereby the public penitents who had been doing special
penance during Lent were received back into the Church. The second is the Chrism Mass, when the bishop
blesses the holy oils to be used for the year. The third is the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, in which the
Church celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. The special ceremonies for this exultant
Mass (the Gloria returns and white vestments are used) include the priest's washing the feet of twelve men, the
removal of the Eucharist to the Altar of Repose, and the stripping of the altars.

The Last Supper

The Maundy Thursday Vigil. After the Blessed Sacrament is "laid to rest" in a special tabernacle on the Altar
of Repose, it is customary for the church to stay open all night and for private devotion to take place. A
variation of this custom is to visit seven such shrines during the night in imitation of the Sette Chiese of the
Roman Stations . This custom was quite popular in American cities like Boston until the late 1960s.

"Clean" Thursday Customs. Because it was the day that penitents and catechumens were cleansed of their
sins (and allowed to bathe again), Maundy Thursday is known in some parts of the world as "Clean" Thursday.
The idea of cleanliness also extended to the rest of the faithful. In a time when bathing did not happen every
day, Clean Thursday became the occasion for thoroughly cleansing the body in preparation for Easter.
There is also a charming legend that after the bells are rung for the Gloria during the Mass of the Last Supper,
"they fly to Rome" where -- depending on who is telling the story -- they either are blessed by the Pope and
sleep on the roof of St. Peter's Holy Saturday night, or are given Easter eggs to return with them on Sunday

Attending the Good Friday Service. The sacrifice of the altar is not offered on the day commemorating the
sacrifice of the cross, and though communion may be distributed, the faithful are discouraged from receiving it
without good reason. Instead, a mournful service is conducted. The priest, vested in black, reads several
passages from the Bible, including the Passion account from the Gospel of John. Afterwards, the "Solemn
Prayers" or "Collects" are offered on behalf of all classes of men, from the Church to the heathen. This is
followed by the veneration of the cross, during which time the dolorous "Reproaches" are chanted. The service
concludes with the "Mass of the Presanctified," a solemn communion rite.

Forty Hours' Devotion: It is traditionally believed that the duration of time from Christ's death until His
Resurrection is forty hours, from 3 p.m. on Good Friday until 7 a.m. Easter Sunday. As early as the 100s it was
customary for some of the faithful to fast and keep vigil during this entire period.

Other Good Friday Customs. If a devotion of forty hours could not be done, many Catholics observed Good
Friday as a day of austerity as best they could. Fasting more than was required was common. Attending the
Three Hours' Devotion, or Seven Last Words of Christ, from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. (the hours our Lord hung
upon the cross), has also been popular. Liturgically speaking, this is a relatively new observance, begun in Peru
in the early 1700s, but it is a very effective one. An older tradition that has lamentably been forgotten, on the
other hand, is that of the Holy Sepulchre, a special shrine set up to house either the Blessed Sacrament or a
crucifix which the faithful could visit on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.