SOLEMN SEASON: Archbishop Joseph Harris places ashes on a baby during the Ash Wednesday service at Our Lady of Perpetual Help RC Church at Harris Promenade, San Fernando. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. —Photo: INNIS FRANCIS

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The changing face of Lent

...Many observances have died out in last 60 years

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

After Carnival celebrations, we enter the season of Lent, a 40-day Christian and secular observance highlighting the journey of Jesus Christ to Calvary, where he was crucified on Good Friday, followed by his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

A major part of that journey is the observance of Lenten practices at the level of the church and society at large. In the past 60 years or so, many of the observances have either changed or disappeared completely.

The earliest mention of Lent in the history of the church comes from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The council had issued many canons (church laws) and among them was the religious observance of Lent. It was referred to in Greek as tessarakonta, meaning 40, the length of time Jesus spent in the desert at the start of his public ministry.

The period of Lent spans from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, during which it recalled Jesus's death on the cross and his resurrection.

Between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the other days of importance are St Joseph's Day; Holy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples; Good Friday; Gloria Saturday and the final celebration of Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead.

Lent is defined as the 40 weekdays before Easter and a period of fasting and abstinence.

Over time the traditional Lenten practices died slowly, while changes were made to the Catholic liturgy. Changes in the liturgy were made during the papacy of Pope Pius XII during Vatican II.

In an interview with Monsignor Christian Pereira, a diocesan priest attached to Our Lady of Perpetual Help RC Church in San Fernando, he lamented that the Lenten season of today does not have the spiritual impact on the population as it did in the old days.

"Lenten practices seem only to reside with religion. Traditional practices have almost vanished. People need to focus more on the spirituality of Lent as a period of reconciliation with God. We need to move away from today's 'eat ah food' mentality, greed and self-gratification, to one of sharing and selflessness," said Pereira.

"Changes made to the Lenten liturgy by Vatican II did not affect the true characteristics of Christian worship.

"During Lent, the church does not want the faithful to put on a Lenten face, but rather an 'about-face' in their daily lives. Lent is a joyful season," he said.

Commenting on the significance of Ash Wednesday, Pereira explained that the distribution of ashes to the faithful is a visible sign of atonement and penance.

"The ashes placed on the foreheads of the faithful represent the dust of the earth to which we must all return. By accepting the ashes, it becomes a commitment leading to a spiritual bond with God.

"Before Vatican II, fasting and abstinence were compulsory practices. However, the church, in its wisdom and compassion, made concessions where, for reasons of age, medical or other consideration, there was a gradual relaxing of the rules," said Pereira.

In the old days, fasting meant having one meal a day, while abstinence meant abstaining from flesh. The church had also imposed certain rules to be observed during Lent and attendance at social gatherings involving dancing and merriment was forbidden.

Marriages were not performed except on St Joseph's Day (March 19), a day set aside by the church to organise parties and weddings within the Lenten period.

In the old days, the feast of St Joseph was an important one. It provided the faithful with an opportunity to take a break from the strict Lenten observances, then to continue the journey climaxing with the Easter rituals.

During Lent, the church was expected to take on a gloomy look in its interior decoration. Flowers were seldom used. The Gloria and Hallelujah, two important recitals at mas, were omitted from services. The faithful were encouraged to wear clothing with subdued colours.

Outside of church observances, the population had developed its own code of conduct for the 40 days of Lent. Much of it was handed down from one generation to another.

The arts took a heavy beating during Lent, in that singing or playing calypso music was forbidden. Music had to be subdued and partying was forbidden. It was felt then that calypsoes did not help in promoting the spiritual ideals of Lent.

Swearing and the use of harsh words to a fellow villager were frowned upon and during Lent there were several instances of family differences being settled.

Older members of the community led a campaign against children who disregarded the solemnity of the Lenten season.

Boys were banned from whistling or shouting while in public places and the secular practices were preserved at schools. Headmasters and teaching staff ensured that no disrespect for the period was shown by pupils. It was part of their contribution to religious discipline.

Perhaps the most interesting Lenten practice for children was "cutting of Lent", which was a friendly agreement to abstain from something during Lent.

Examples would be to refrain from eating sweets, singing calypsoes, or even speaking in a loud tone of voice. Those making the agreement would bend their little fingers and hook them together and pledge to obey the rules of Lent.

After the pledge, any of the parties caught breaking the agreement would be thumped until he shouted "Lent".

Older folk even used Lent as an opportunity to revive lost friendships curtailed by arguments or jealousies.

Children were encouraged to share their meals with others or give them to the poor and needy.

On Good Friday, it was not unusual to see hundreds dressed in black clothing on their way to attend church services. Black clothing was considered a reminder of the death of Christ.

At church services, the priests wore black vestments during what was called the Mass of the pre-sanctified. Changes were adopted at Vatican II regarding the colour of the vestments.

On Good Friday, black vestments were replaced with red because Good Friday was seen as a joyful occasion.

But many Lenten traditions and practices have died over the years, leaving only memories of the glorious past when Lent served as a spiritual reawakening to many.

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