(An excerpt from the booklet How to Keep Lent, + Imprimatur by Patrick Cardinal Hayes, February 6, 1935).
The Season of Lent
Ash Wednesday is the index to Lent. It tells us the meaning of Lent. It is not a day by itself, but the first day of a period of time, called by the Church, the acceptable time. It is the first of forty days of public penance, which is binding in a greater or less degree upon all Christians who have come to the use of reason.
The Church, usually so rich and grand in her ceremonies, on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the day of salvation, gathers together her people for a ceremony unusually simple in its externals, yet one which contains within it depths of meaning.
On Palm Sunday of last year the Church blessed branches of palm and gave a branch to each of her children. On the first Palm Sunday the Jews bore their Lord and King in triumph into Jerusalem, and waving palm branches in their hands, made the streets resound again and again with their joyous hosannas. We can hardly believe it, but on Friday of the very same week the voices of these same Jews swelled the cry which raised their Lord and King on the ignominious Cross.
We, too, last Palm Sunday joined in the procession and welcomed our God and King with many "Hosannas." How many of us since then have crucified Him over again by mortal sin?
So these palms of last year are burned and reduced to ashes. And on Ash Wednesday these ashes are blessed and the Church throughout the world gathers together her children, places these ashes upon their heads and reminds them of their mortality in the memorable words used by Almighty God when He pronounced sentence of death on our first parents: "Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."
The Church covers us with ashes in order to imprint indelibly upon our hearts those words first uttered by God Almighty Himself, words which have not lost one jot of their force or meaning. Who dares to say he can forget his origin with impunity? How often we do forget it! How seldom we think of it! How much need in every year for such a season as Lent! This is the truth the Church by her ceremony impresses on us the opening day of Lent. "Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
Mindful of our origin we shall not lose sight of our end. No matter how much care we may take to preserve the body, it will decay, it will return to the earth from which it was taken. In what more striking, more effective manner could the Church prepare us for the great work of Lent?
As Ash Wednesday is but the first day of Lent, of a period of time, so the warning must be in our minds and hearts during the whole of Lent. Before the altar of God we make a public act of humiliation. Humbled, we see the seriousness of our crimes and ingratitude as we have never before seen it. This disposition begets an earnest desire to do penance and live up to the spirit of Lent; and the fulfillment of this desire leads us on to a more perfect love of God, which is the essence of perfection, the end for which we were made, and in which alone our true happiness consists both in time and eternity.
Lent calls on us to take account of ourselves before God. It calls on us to search into our souls and see how we stand before God. Lent is the acceptable time and a day of salvation to us according to the manner in which we spend it. If, during these days of public penance, God is liberal and generous towards those who even make but slight efforts, let us not forget that He is equally strict and severe with those who spend the time of Lent carelessly and indifferently, and who abuse the graces and opportunities offered to them at this holy season. Lent, then, according as we use it or abuse it, is a time of salvation or damnation. To abuse Lent is to seek eternal death.
The Right Spirit
However many our practices of self-denial and sacrifice might be, they would be all quite worthless were they not animated by the right spirit. To understand what that spirit is we have but to recall the chief significance of such a season as that of Lent. The forty days are but a journey to Calvary. They lead us to the Cross. They are a meditation upon the passion and death of our Savior. Thus, yearly, the Agony and Crucifixion of our Lord are brought vividly to our mind, that we may, through love of Him, call forth that sorrow for sin which is our best expression of sympathy with the Divine Sufferer.
The spirit of Lent is, then, a spirit of repentance. Our soul is awakened to a sense of its own defects and their gravity, and to the need of an abiding interior sorrow. This spirit will manifest itself first in the active steps we take to stop sin, to avoid the occasions of sin, and to guard ourselves against falling back into sin. We cannot expect to derive any profit or spiritual benefit from Lent, unless, above all things, we put sin behind us, and set our faces, with determination, towards God and the right. This spirit will manifest itself also in outward acts of sorrow for all sins that we have committed, and, hence, the external penances of Lent.
There are Christians who resemble the barren tree of which our Lord speaks when He says: "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" They bring forth leaves, shadows, appearances, but no fruit. They produce even blossoms and these are good intentions. These blossoms are forever being scattered to the ground by the winds of human respect, want of courage, attachment to the world and love of an easy-going life. There can be no good, true fruit without good works. The good works required of every Christian are comprised under fasting, alms deeds and prayer. There is no one who cannot perform these works, particularly during the Lent season.