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Theology for the common man

Symbols and signs of Lent

The role of Lent in the liturgical year is considerable. This time should help us to experience the mysteries of our salvation in our lives. The liturgy offers us various signs and symbols drawing abundantly from a long human tradition to which God has given a salutary meaning. It is worth seeing these symbols and signs as a way to approach God’s plan of salvation for us.

Period of 40 days
Lent lasts 40 days. This is a symbolic number, which indicates a special time of preparation before a substantial meeting with God. On account of his sinfulness man needs to stand before God adequately prepared. For this he needs a time of preparation. The prophets used to prepare themselves for a long time for this encounter with God, especially when the important mission was awaiting them. Moses fasted on the Sinai Mountain for 40 days and 40 nights before ascending the mountain to receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Elias traveled 40 days and 40 nights by the power of a heavenly meal reaching the divine Mount Horeb where he experienced his meeting with God in the form of the mild hum of the wind. Even the pagan citizens of Ninevah, thanks to the preaching of Jonas, were able to fast for 40 days to reconcile with God and restrain Him from the planned destruction of their city. The more so Jesus, following the symbolic meaning of this sign, goes to the desert in order to prepare himself through 40 days for his mission of salvation. Each of us receives, in the season of Lent, his or her own 40 days---a time to prepare himself for this particular encounter with God in the mystery of salvation.

Sojourning in the desert
This period of 40 days of preparation for the meeting with God has its own particular place: a desert. This is a place located far away from tumult of the world and its pleasures, putting a man in good condition to remain in solitude, where God can be really found and heard in the profundity of his heart. It is not necessary to be physically in the desert. Rather, it is necessary to create some distance from the influence of the world in order to be able to listen to the word of God. The prophets and a multitude of saints chose the desert, where for the lack of food and water, they experienced their own insufficiency and therefore their profound desire for God. This is exactly the same case for Jesus, who in a human way wants to teach us where to search for God: far away from the turmoil of the world in the deep silence of the heart. It is a task for each of us to create the condition of the desert place in our hearts, living far away from the revelry and entertainment of this world. This is why the Catholic Church proposes that we abstain from boisterous and frivolous entertainment during the Lenten Season.

Distribution of ashes
The gesture of putting ashes on the forehead is the first moment and sign of entering into the process of encountering God. The sojourn in the desert must begin with an adequate interior posture, with an acknowledgement of one’s own unworthiness and sinfulness. This recognition of his attitude and place in the face of the majesty and mercy of God is called humility. In the tradition of Israel, besides other meanings, such as sadness, pain, and mourning, this position was expressed by an external gesture of placing ashes on the forehead. It placed the man in the proper humble posture before God reminding him that he is nobody (like ashes). Therefore he needs conversion (Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return). This truth is reflected in the words of the priest during the distribution of ashes: Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.

Fasting, almsgiving and prayer
The posture of humility (expressed by the gesture of imposing ashes introduces the man to the climate of the desert. It is here, in the necessary isolation where the meeting with God has its way. The atmosphere is created by fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, the three fundamental biblical action of the man coming back to God. All these elements were abundantly in use by the prophets of Israel and the saints of the Church, not to mention Jesus himself who fasted in the desert and prayed in order to be able to give his life on the cross. These actions in effect, reflect our love toward God, inner meditation, and seriousness about the mysteries of our salvation that introduce us to the center of the divine circle. They enable us to hear God in the deepness of our hearts through the solitude of the desert..

Purple color
The Lenten stance of ‘being the man in the desert’ evokes the color of blood (red) mixed with a heavenly goal (blue). This color, violet, is the color of mourning and sadness, hard labor and torment. It is typical of the desert atmosphere where everything is lacking and everything achieved/received is the result of pain, suffering and violence. The joyful meeting with God comes as a result of this violence and pain. It is also the color of the bloodshed of the Son of God who brought low the heights of heaven for us.

Lenten liturgy: Stations of the Cross and songs
The three basic Lenten operations of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the means by which salvation was accomplished. The Lenten liturgy that is responsible for bringing us this salvific substance always reminds us of the love of God toward us, the love who offered himself for us on the cross. This story of love, so assiduously kept in the heart of the Mother of Jesus, survived in the form of biblical narratives, and as such it was the subject of meditation of monks and fathers of the desert. With time they created a form of traditional and folk liturgy used by simple people and known today as the Stations of the cross and Lenten songs.

Let us use this time and circle of Lent to be better prepared for our encounter with God in the mysteries of our salvation.