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Lent – a sacred rhythm, a ritual space

Q: Archbishop J, why Lent?   

If Carnival is a mirror of our soul, we must conclude all is not well with our soul. We need a way to heal the soul of this nation. For this, we need to understand ritual as a healing space for the soul.

From the earliest pages of the Book of Genesis, we learn that times and seasons are vital to human flourishing. After creating the heavens, the Earth, plants and animals, and humans, God rested: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen 2:1–3).


Times and Seasons

From the beginning, there was a rhythm to the week. Six days for toil and labour, followed by one day of rest, set aside for God. The Sabbath was set aside—holy—not because God needed it. It was for us humans that the Sabbath was created so we could have rhythm in our lives and a time set aside for the worship of God.

For 40 days during the Great Flood, Noah remains in the ark. Once the waters recede, God bids him to leave the ark with his family and all the animals (Gen 8:15ff).

After leaving the ark, he first builds an altar to the Lord, to offer sacrifice. There God makes a covenant with Noah, promising He will not destroy the earth again, adding, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22).

The promise of the rhythm of the seasons is an integral part of that covenant. We are people of rhythms—of times and seasons. The observance of these is vital for human flourishing. Every day is not like every other day. The Sabbath and the seasons of Israel—and of the Church—are vital for human flourishing. Ecclesiastes 3:1ff. puts it best:

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance …

Times and seasons have been always vital to human flourishing: the contrast, change of focus, change of pace and activity are all necessary. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner considers religion the key to culture, and ritual the key to religion. Without ritual there is no religion.

This is why we need to intentionally observe Lent. There was a time when the culture helped us to ritually keep Lent. Now we need to understand its importance for us to flourish.


Lent, a ritual space

Lent is a ritual space where we are invited into the sacred rhythm that facilitates catharsis (deep transformation). In Catholic countries, on Tuesday night the Carnival ritual ends, and the Lenten ritual begins, with the sign of ash on our foreheads and the most dramatic words: “Remember that you are dust and onto dust you shall return.” Or “Repent and believe the good news”.

The sign (ashes) and words together plunge the pilgrim into a different space—40 days of austerity when we make our devotion to God priority. We remember who we are, children of God, and change our behaviour to live right with God, neighbour, self, and creation. This is the essence of repentance.

Carnival acts as the liminal space between Ordinary Time and the ritual time of Lent. Lent, however, is the ritual time between Ordinary Time and Easter when we celebrate Jesus Christ conquering death itself.


The purpose of Lent

Just as Israel had to go into the desert for 40 years to learn to worship God, so we are given 40 days to prepare to worship God in spirit and truth, at Easter. The purpose of the exodus was to worship God.

At the burning bush, God calls to Moses: “… you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God’” (Exodus 3:18).

After 40 days in the ark, when he was on dry ground, Noah worshipped God. The people in the desert learnt to worship God. We too must learn to worship God more deeply. This is the inner purpose of Lent.

Worship is to give worth to. When we are healthy, we give ultimate worth to God. This is why the people needed to leave Egypt. This is why we need to leave Ordinary Time to take part in the ritual of Lent: to learn to worship God.


Spiritual training

For Carnival, which is fleeting, people train their bodies for months to be in shape. People make sacrifices at a gym all-year round, for the sake of their physical body. We must work for a crown that will never disappear, one that will lead us to eternal life (1 Cor 9:24–27).

Lent offers three separate and interlocking spiritual exercises—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each contributes to the spiritual health of the person and the community. Together they are a powerful spiritual gym that offers grace beyond all measure.

In the ritual time of Lent, we avail ourselves of help to move our attention from self to God, the other, and creation. This Lent let us cut the excess out, let us focus on what is vitally important. Let us participate in spiritual training to better build communion between us and God, and among the human family here on earth.


Key Message:

Lent is a ritual time where we change focus and priority to learn to worship God correctly. Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving we advance towards God.

Action Step:

This Lent, amid all the activity, ensure God has priority. Ask God to show you what He wants you to do specifically with your prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Be intentional and committed.

Scripture Reading:

1 Cor 9:24–27