Pope Francis has been on retreat this week with his collaborators in the Roman Curia. Popes have done so for some 80 years, since Pope Pius XI started the custom of making an annual retreat in common. That it takes place the first full week of Lent seems to make sense.
But why? Why do Catholics — and to be sure, other Christians, especially of the Eastern traditions, both Catholic and Orthodox — readily consider Lent to be the most spiritually fruitful time of the year?
While most of the year is spent in the sadly named “Ordinary Time,” there are four special liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. The longest of them is Easter, at 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, emphasizing that the central reality of being Christian is that we rejoice in Jesus risen from the dead.
Yet length alone is not determinative of importance. Easter is longer than Lent, but Advent is longer than Christmas. (An older tradition, though, had the Christmas season extended from Dec. 25 to Feb. 2, the Presentation of the Lord, a biblical 40 days.)
Indeed, it must be conceded that Easter is likely the least observed of the liturgical seasons in daily Christian living. Advent has its wreath, Christmas its many decorations and treats for the “12 days” until Epiphany, Lent all of its penitential practices, but Easter seems to disappear when the sun sets on Easter Sunday.
Consider one common example: Many parish priests are very careful not to schedule absences from the parish during Lent; the greater spiritual fervor requires them to be on hand. Yet it is very common for us priests to schedule a few days of retreat, family visits or simple vacations immediately after Easter Sunday. It makes sense to have a break after the intensity of Holy Week, but the Easter Octave is the liturgical high point of the entire year. It is liturgically odd to take a pass on those days.
The Catholic faithful are the same — perhaps they have learned from their priests! Pastors commonly report that daily Mass is very well attended during Lent, with the congregation even doubling. During the Easter season? Back to normal.
For many parishes, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are among the most crowded days of the year. (The United States is an anomaly on the latter, for Good Friday is not a holiday, as it is usually is in Christian countries.) There are even parts of the Catholic world where people who otherwise never darken the doors of a church come for Good Friday but not Easter Sunday.
The Stations of the Cross — Via Crucis — are prayed regularly in parishes during Lent. Some years back, an effort was made to complement them with Stations of the Resurrection or Stations of Light — Via Lucis — for Easter, but it never caught on. And in terms of parish life, the Friday fish fry makes Lent a more social time than even Christmas, and certainly Easter.
So why do Catholics love Lent? I might suggest at least three reasons.
First, there is a deep human logic of being willing to pay the price, invest the resources, make the effort and earn the reward.
Lent is the time that we embrace the discipline that is necessary for success in all aspects of life — study, work, fitness and financial management. There is no free lunch. Lent is when we do the hard work necessary to have Easter, like studying before an exam, or doing spring cleaning to keep the house in good order. We have to suffer first in order to rejoice later.
“In every culture, there are ancient stories and myths that teach that all of us, at times, have to sit in the ashes,” writes Father Ronald Rolheiser in a magnificent book of art and meditations, God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, edited by Gregory Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. “We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. The name literally means the little girl (puella) who sits in the ashes (cinders). The moral of the story is clear: Before you get to go to the great feast, you must first spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, smudged, tending to duty, unglamorous, waiting.”
That does describe the wisdom we pass on from one generation to the next. But human logic is not the logic of the Gospel.
God’s grace — the gift of his Son and his redemptive work — is not something we earn or achieve. It is entirely gratuitous.
The “gift” of salvation is not at all like the “transgression” of sin, as we read from St. Paul on the First Sunday of Lent. So the idea of Lent as a sort of necessary period of spiritual training before an athletic competition or artistic performance is not a fully Christian vision.
It remains true, though, that even taking into account the gift of God’s grace, we do need spiritual discipline. That’s the second reason we look forward to Lent. We don’t earn our salvation, but we do have to work it out.
Discipline of our imagination, our appetites and our attachments are all necessary for growth in virtue. We all recognize God’s grace is not some magic that he works upon us as passive objects. We are genuine subjects, who must freely respond to God’s invitation. We don’t earn the invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, but if we accept it, we do have to make the effort to go to the feast and arrive wearing our wedding garments, lest we be found unworthy and cast out.
If there is a danger in thinking we earn salvation, there is also a danger that we simply presume on God’s mercy, treating it as something we are entitled to. Lent corrects that tendency.
Third, Lent is the season that best corresponds to our passage through this vale of tears.
Advent is about the coming of the Lord, which we still await definitively at the end of history. Christmas is about the Lord who has come, bringing peace on earth and goodwill to men, but both sometimes appear to be more promised than real.
We proclaim ourselves an Easter people, but we are not quite ready for a life fulfilled by singing the praises of God, as we will in heaven. Lent, though, seems to correspond to where we find ourselves, perhaps sitting for a while in the ashes of disappointment or failure, or perhaps in need of timely encouragement to take up anew the discipline of the Christian life.
Easter may indeed give us a foretaste of heaven, but Lent provides support while we still eat the bread of affliction.
Why is Lent our favorite season? Perhaps because it best gives to us what we need on the journey, having not yet arrived at the feast.
is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.