There is an intimate bond between the Lent and Easter cycle with the Person of Christ. The cycle makes present for us, and draws us into, Our Saviour’s “Paschal Mystery” (pascha from Hebrew pesach, Passover) in a sacramental way. Remember! Sacramental reality is no less real than the sensible reality to which we normally pay attention and by which we are so often distracted from what is above.
Each year, our Holy Church conforms herself to her dying and rising Lord. Traditionally during Lent the Church strips our liturgy of all its ornaments: music and all decorations such as flowers. She liturgically fasts, nay rather, dies throughout Lent. Increasing deprivation should characterize Lent’s liturgical worship so that our Easter celebration is that much sweeter, the flowers more florid, the music more tuneful, the candles even brighter. Ancient liturgical customs, usually persevered where the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is enjoyed, can help us recover a deeper observance of Lent. The “Alleluia” is suppressed from Septuagesima onward. On Passion Sunday (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) statues and images are draped, taken from sight. During the Triduum, which for St Leo the Great (d 461) is totum paschale sacramentum - the “whole paschal sacramental mystery” (tr. 72.1), bells fall silent on Holy Thursday, there is no Mass on Good Friday, though there is at least Communion. On Saturday she is still in liturgical death, without Communion. At dusk and the Easter Vigil everything returns ten-fold with her resurrection.
Let us see the Collect for this 1st Sunday:
Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus,
ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti,
et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum,
et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur.
Quadragesima, “fortieth” for the fortieth weekday before Easter, is the Latin term for the season of Lent. Exercitium indicates military and other practices for preparedness, “exercises”. Arcanum is something “closed” and thus “a sacred secret, a mystery”. Conversatio means “conduct, manner of living”, not just “conversation.”
Early Christian writers lacked specialized vocabulary for their new theology. They made up new words or adapted existing terms and gave them new meaning. Sacramentum, perhaps first used in a Christian context by the ecclesial wild-child Tertullian (d c. 225), rendered Greek mysterion. Its root is sacer, “dedicated or consecrated to a divinity, holy, sacred” (like sacerdos, “priest”). In the Roman military, sacramentum was the oath taken by a soldier. In the Christian context, sacramentum referred to the profession of faith made by catechumens when they were baptized, to the Eucharist, the marriage vow, the laying on of hands, etc. In our Latin prayers, for sacramentum we can say almost interchangeably “sacrament”, “sacramental mystery” or “mystery”.
Grant to us, Almighty God, that, through the annual exercises of the forty-day Lenten sacrament, we may both make progress in understanding the hidden dimension of Christ and by worthy conduct of life imitate the consequences.
Get that? Lent is sacramentum: a material sign by which God bestows spiritual effects.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Christ Jesus took our human nature into a bond with His divinity in order to save us from our sins and also to reveal to us who we really are (cf. GS 22). Christ is a Person, not a topic of study. Christ can only be known through an ongoing relationship with Him in which He increases and we decrease. During Lent the words of the Baptist must ring in our ears daily, even hourly: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). When He increases in us, we are more who we are supposed to be. Thus, we have to make “room” for Him by our self-denial, the extirpation of bad habits and desires, and the cleansing of our soul. Lent (the quadragesimale sacramentum) is the mystery during which we learn things about Christ, and therefore about ourselves, that we can learn in no other way.
In our Collect, Father humbly asks God to make this annual series of disciplines and exercises effective in our lives so that we can have the joy our deprivations and our decreasing promise: the joy of the state of grace after falling – happiness in heaven with our God, our Blessed Mother and all the angels and loved-ones and saints – resurrection.
Lent is a transforming mystery, a “sacrament”, during which our physical and spiritual practices have real effects: they bring us into the mystery of the dying and rising Jesus. This transforming bond with Christ is brought about through denial of self, spiritual and corporal good works for others, examination of conscience, confession of sins, reconciliation with God and neighbor, and full, conscious and active participation in liturgical worship.