WDTPRS – 1st Sunday of Lent (N.O.): our season of transforming mystery

The Roman Station for the 1st Sunday of Lent is St. John Lateran.


Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti, et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur.

Quadragesima is the Latin word for the season of Lent, literally “fortieth” (from quadraginta “forty”) for the fortieth weekday before Easter (Ash Wednesday). In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D., we find quadragesimalis is the adjective form for “forty” and means “Lenten”. Pope St. Leo the Great (+461) used the phrase quadragesimale ieiunium, literally “the Forty Fast”, for Lent. In our WDTPRS version let us say “forty-day” together with “Lenten” (“Lent” comes from the Old English lencten for “spring”).

Exercitium indicates military and other practices for preparedness, “exercises”. Christians of the Church Militant must “exercise” (repeatedly drill) the virtues and pious practices to fulfill their mission, the vocation in life.

Arcanum means something that is “closed” and thus, “a secret thing or place.” It refers to sacred rites and sanctuaries and “a sacred secret, a mystery”. The always handy Lewis & Short Dictionary reveals that the verb sector is “to follow continually or eagerly, in a good or bad sense” and also “to run after, attend, accompany.” It also can be “imitate.” Effectus is “a doing, effecting” but in respect to the result of an action it means “an operation, effect, tendency, purpose.” We can get at both of those meanings with “consequence.”

Conversatio will fool you if you are not careful. It means “conduct, manner of living” and not the English false-friend “conversation.”

Early Christian writers lacked specialized vocabulary for their new theology and so made up new words or adapted existing words and gave them new meaning. Sacramentum was first used – that we know – in a Christian context by Tertullian (+ c. 225). In early Christian writings in Latin sacramentum translates Greek mysterion, “mystery”. Its root is sacer, “dedicated or consecrated to a divinity, holy, sacred” (like sacerdos… “priest”). Sacramentum had a legal/juridical meaning as a bond or initiation confirmed by an oath. In the military sacramentum was the initiation into service and the oath taken by a soldier. In the Christian context, sacramentum referred to the pledge and profession of faith made by catechumens when they were baptized and initiated in the Church. Sacramentum pointed to the content of the faith the Christian pledged he accepted. Thus, sacramentum involves the mysteries of our salvation, the meaning of the words and deeds of Christ explained in a liturgical context, the liturgical feasts themselves, and the rites of initiation themselves (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist). St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) used sacramentum also for marriage, the laying on of hands at ordination, anointing of the sick and reconciliation of penitent sinners. We can say for sacramentum something like “sacramental mystery”, or simply “mystery”. So, in Latin texts, sacramentum can mean more than just the English word “sacrament”.


Grant to us, Almighty God, that, through the annual exercises of the forty-day Lenten mystery, we may both make progress in understanding the hidden dimension of Christ and imitate the consequences by worthy conduct of life.

through our observance of Lent,
help us to understand the meaning
of your Son’s death and resurrection,
and teach us to reflect it in our lives.

Grant, almighty God, [already better!]
through the yearly observances of holy Lent, [holy]
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects
. [what a contrast!]

Even though this is a prayer during Mass, sacramentum here refers not just to the sacrament of the Eucharist, but also its ancient meaning: the forty-day long discipline of Lent which mysteriously bonds Christians and Christ more closely together.

The whole season of Lent is a transforming mystery, a “sacrament”, during which our practices have consequential 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 and good works for others, penitential mortification and works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal.

In 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.

Keep two things about Jesus firmly in mind:

He is eternal almighty God and He is fully human.

He 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).

Through His words and deeds in Scripture (and continuing teaching through the Church), Christ reveals us more fully to ourselves while showing us the invisible Father. We know some things about Christ (and ourselves) that can only be known through an ongoing relationship with Him in which He increases and we decrease. We perhaps might measure the length and breadth and height of the Cross (cf. Ephesians 3:18-19), but part of It is hidden: the part under ground which holds it up. The sensible accidents of the Eucharist can be studied, but the divine reality is hidden from our senses. We pierce through the mystery to the hidden mysteries through faith and penance.

As our prayer says, Lent – the quadragesimale sacramentum – is a season during which we learn things about Christ, and therefore about ourselves, we can learn in no other way.

In our Collect, Holy Church calls the season of Lent a sacramentum, a “mystery”. There is an intimate bond between the whole Lenten cycle and the Person of Christ Himself.

The Lent and Easter cycles make present for us, in a sacramental way, the reality of the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s life, passion, death and resurrection.

Remember! Sacramental reality is no less real than the sensible reality we normally pay attention to. When we participate actively in Lenten practices, God the Father conforms us to His Son who died and rose. During Lent each year the Church conforms herself to the dying and rising Jesus.

This is why traditionally the Church stripped the liturgy of its ornaments: music and all decorations such as flowers. On Passion Sunday (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) statues and images would be draped and hidden. Bells would disappear on Good Friday and there was no Mass at all. The Mass experiences a liturgical death so that at Easter, when everything returns ten-fold, our joy can be that much sweeter, the flowers that must more florid, the music more splendid, the church that much brighter. In our Collect today we are humbly asking God to make this annual series of disciplines and exercises effective in our lives so that we can have the joy the deprivations promise.

To be good Catholic Christians our lives must take on the qualities of the mysteries we profess.

Our participation in these mysteries is not just in this or that particular Mass, for an hour or so on Sunday. We are asked to participate actively and fully in the whole liturgical year. In church and outside of church this participation does not end.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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